Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
To say that I am not a sports fan would be an understatement; my knowledge of sports barely extends to which ball is used in each sport (football is the one with the pointy ends right?). However, I read every word of UNDEFEATED: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin. But, in keeping with my theme of full disclosure, Sheinkin is an author who I will read anything by; I would happily read his shopping list and probably learn a great deal from it in the process. If you don’t know who Sheinkin is then you may have been catatonic for the past several years, as three of Sheinkin’s books have been selected as National Book Award finalists and have garnered a slew of other awards as well. He is probably best known, to date, for BOMB: The Race to Build --- And Steal --- The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.
Back to the book at hand; needless to say, I was thrilled when I saw that Sheinkin had another book coming out and I was particularly intrigued when I discovered that Jim Thorpe was one of the primary subjects of this new book. I knew that Thorpe was a well-known Native American athlete, but beyond that I didn’t know much about him. However, I did know that I wanted to know more about Thorpe and I wanted to learn it from reading Sheinkin’s UNDEFEATED.
"Even though UNDEFEATED can accurately be classified as a sports book, it is about so much more….All of the sports and the 'more' is delivered in Sheinkin’s extremely readable and compelling narrative nonfiction writing style."
Thorpe does feature prominently in UNDEFEATED, but he is not the only “character” or subject, therefore, UNDEFEATED is not a biography of Thorpe. However, Sheinkin does provide a lot of information about Thorpe and an outline of his life. The details which Sheinkin chose to include about Thorpe’s life focus primarily on his athletic ability, his leadership ability and his role in the creation of the game of football that we know today. Thorpe accomplished some amazing feats in his lifetime but, unfortunately, as a Native American in the early 1900s he was not treated well or even fairly by the United States government or most white citizens of the United States. While this treatment of Thorpe and his fellow Native American athletes is nauseating, it makes his accomplishments that much more awe inspiring.
Speaking of other Native American athletes, they are another primary “character” in UNDEFEATED. Thorpe rose to football fame as a member of the Carlisle Indian School football team. Carlisle was a Native American boarding school whose students were Native American children and young adults who were forcibly removed from their families and homes in order to attend Carlisle and other schools like it. The goal of Carlisle and most of the other Native American boarding schools of the time was to, in many cases, beat the Native American out of its students and replace it with the more “civilized” ways of the white man. However, this approach, beyond its cruelty, often left its victims in a no man’s land between Native American and white culture as they did not fully fit into either culture. Even under these circumstances the Carlisle Indian School football team was one of, if not the, greatest football team of the era. The way that Thorpe and his teammates played would impact how the game was played forever; these impacts are still evident in today’s game.
Glenn “Pop” Warner was the coach of the Carlisle Indian School football team for much of this golden era for the team and for football itself. Warner was a football player himself, and although he wasn’t talented enough to distinguish himself on the field as a player, he found he made a pretty good coach. He was tough on his athletes and perhaps had unrealistic expectations for them. Warner’s treatment of the Native American athletes he coached, and his treatment of Thorpe in particular, is not clear cut. I appreciated Sheinkin’s presentation of Warner as a human --- and a flawed one at that --- but I don’t know a single human who isn’t flawed. I believe that Sheinkin also fairly shows Warner as a man of the era in which he lived and by that era’s standards his treatment of Native Americans was better than most, but by today’s standards they would be considered deplorable.
As I mentioned in my introduction I am not a sports fan; I don’t choose to watch sports of any kind --- well, except the Olympics, but that is the rare exception. Even though UNDEFEATED can accurately be classified as a sports book, it is about so much more. Readers get to observe Thorpe as he falls in love with and eventually marries Iva Miller. Readers get to travel aboard the Finland, a ship headed to Sweden, with Thorpe and Warner to attend and compete in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Readers will witness moments of great human compassion and sportsmanship. Readers will marvel as the paths of future United States President, Dwight Eisenhower, and Thorpe cross on the football field as the West Point football team plays the Carlisle Indian School football team. All of the sports and the “more” is delivered in Sheinkin’s extremely readable and compelling narrative nonfiction writing style.
UNDEFEATED: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team is definitely a book for sports fans, but perhaps more importantly, it is a book for everyone else as well.
Reviewed by Aimee Rogers on April 12, 2017