Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press

Rating: 5 stars

I'm a big, huge fan of this author. Steve Sheinkin writes nonfiction middle grade books that are well-written, well-researched, fast-paced and informative--I really wish they were around when I was growing up. My favorite of his is Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. C'mon, with a title like that, how can you not pick it up?! 

Undefeated is about Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete who dominated almost any sport he attempted (baseball is the notable exception, as documented in the book). Born around the turn of the century, when Native Americans were being herded onto reservations and assimilated into white American culture, Thorpe was forced to go to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The story centers around the meeting of and relationship between Thorpe and Pop Warner. Warner, in case, like me, you're not a football fan, was a football mastermind who hailed from the top of society, having graduated from, then coached in, the Ivy League.

These two men could not have had more different backgrounds.

Yet, Pop Warner realized Jim Thorpe was the most gifted athlete he had ever seen. He knew that within moments of meeting Thorpe, after watching him outrun a pack of Warner's well-trained and well-seasoned football players. And so the two began their relationship, which has been lauded the "most winningest" combination in sports history.

Sheinkin chronicles Thorpe's rise in football, and how he crossed over to track and field to take advantage of his speed. From there, he volunteered to give decathlons a try. Turns out he was a shoo-in for such a demanding sport, and he represented the United States in that sport and the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. He was the first Native American to earn a gold medal. (Later, due to the fact that he accepted payment as a minor league baseball player, Thorpe was stripped of his medals.)

In addition to Thorpe's fascinating life and sports career, Sheinkin reports on the history of Native Americans in the United States. The chapters about how Native Americans were forced to schools such as the one at Carlisle, stripped of their birth name and given a "white" name, and then punished for remembering or practicing anything from their native tribes is eye-opening and humbling. In addition, Sheinkin writes about the early years of football. I'm pretty much the opposite of a football fan (don't tell my Seahawks-crazed neighbors that), but found that part of the book really interesting.

Clearly, this is not a book for really young children. But it is an excellent choice for curious, history-minded readers age ten or older, and could be read aloud to a slightly younger child (so that younger readers could have their inevitable questions about Native American policies answered right away).

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