Book review: Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, by Steve Sheinkin

Sheinkin, Steve. Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. Roaring Brook, 2017. $19.99. 280p. ISBN 9781596439542. Ages 12+. P7Q9

In 1912, 25-year-old Jim Thorpe was declared “the greatest all-around athlete in the world” at the Olympics; a year later he was stripped of all his gold medals because he had briefly played pro baseball for meager pay years earlier. The three-time National Book Award finalist and author of such superbly-researched books as Most Dangerous, the in-depth look at how Daniel Ellsberg leaked Vietnam War documents and rocked that nation, has produced another fine book, this one about the struggles of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century and the racism that they faced. At the same time, Thorpe’s football team, under the coaching of Pop Warner, changed the direction of the game of football, setting the foundation for today’s football playing and rules. With Thorpe’s and Warner’s innovations, Carlisle defeated major college teams including those from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Army. In addition to describing these monumental achievements, Sheinkin tells about Thorpe as a teenager and his uneven progress that led him to the Indian school where whites tried to strip the “native” out of Native Americans by cutting their hair, preventing them from speaking their languages, and giving them Anglo names. Carlisle’s superintendent and founder made a vow to “Kill the Indian; Save the Man.”

Verdict: Extensive interviews and institutional records along with biographies provide the basis for this honest book from an inveterate researcher who presents his material in a highly accessible and well nuanced style, fascinating to readers who might lack an interest in football and far more complex than the title indicates. Black and white photographs add to the interest.

April 2017 review by Nel Ward.

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