Saturday, August 25, 2018

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

I had heard of Jim Thorpe before. I knew he was a Native American and a great athlete. And it turns out, that's pretty much all I knew.

Jim Thorpe was, like a lot of Native American kids, sent away to a boarding school run by whites that was designed to get the Indian out of these kids and basically make them as white as possible. It didn't work. Even the students who assimilated 100% still couldn't find jobs in the white community afterwards due to racism and prejudice, so even if it worked perfectly, it didn't work. But the Carlisle Indian School did have one thing that worked: their football team.

This was in football's infancy. Players didn't wear helmets, the forward pass was illegal, and most players played both offense and defense. Jim Thorpe was on Carlisle's track and field team and he was amazing. The coach, Pop Warner (yes, the guy that kiddie football leagues are named after to this day--I didn't know he was a real guy!), didn't think Jim was big enough. But it turns out you don't have to be big if you can outrun everyone. And break every tackle. If eleven men can't drag you down. Warner let Thorpe join the team.

This was also before conferences, right around the time of the formation of the NCAA, and teams made their own schedules. Warner wanted to prove how great his team was, so every year he tried to schedule games against The Big Four: Princeton, Yale, UPenn, and Harvard. Oh, these were all away games for Carlisle, too, making them even more underdogs.

And yet, they usually won. They beat the pants off other schools. And they did it all playing more than fair--from the beginning they knew the prejudice they were up against would end poorly with them, if they resorted to slugging or other illegal but largely ignored tactics that other teams did regularly, so they played extra-clean. And really, while some of them were older, they were mostly a high school team, playing against colleges. And his last year, the biggest game of all was against Army. The player in the same position as Thorpe on the other team was Ike Eisenhower.

Oh, and one summer Jim went to the Olympics and beat the pants off everyone there. His competitors all said he was the best athlete ever. Several news articles including the New York Times repeatedly compared him to Greek gods, and in a memorable comparison said he would have been far better than Goliath and other famous strong men of lore, because he wasn't just strong, but also fast and agile. But also he technically wasn't a US citizen when he competed for the US, because at that time, no American Indians were given citizenship, as ironically, the US government didn't consider them lawfully here.

Jim Thorpe's story is impressive, inspirational, frustrating, and one that all Americans should know. While this book is written for teens, it's not dumbed-down at all, and adults can also read it and enjoy it with ease. Filled with amazing photos throughout.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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