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Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin [in Shelf Awareness]

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When 19-year-old Jim Thorpe (1888-1955) joined Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s football team in 1907, it was the fastest team in the country, “the most creative, the most fun to watch.” Already the school’s track star, Thorpe was, self-admittedly, “a scarecrow dressed for football” when he initially approached Coach “Pop” Warner, who promptly told him to “take a hike.” Thorpe persisted, demonstrating “a combination of power, agility and speed Pop Warner had never seen in one player – and never would again.” History proved Warner to be football’s “most innovative coach”; Thorpe would become “the greatest star the sport had ever seen.”

Thorpe survived “a childhood that would have broken most boys”: he lost his beloved twin brother; his Oklahoma family was victimized by ruthless anti-Native American laws; and he was removed – like most Native American children at the time – from his family and sent to Indian schools created to strip children of their Native identities. Somehow Thorpe still lived up to his original name, Wathohuck, Potawatomi for “Bright Path.”

When 15-year-old Thorpe arrived at Carlisle in 1904, it was more military academy than educational haven. Founder Richard Henry Pratt’s “kill the Indian in them” philosophy was no hyperbole – the campus had an on-site cemetery with nearly 200 graves. During Carlisle’s almost 40-year history, from 1879 to 1918, 8,500 students enrolled, only 741 graduated and twice as many fled.

From this maelstrom emerged Warner’s powerhouse team. Early football was a barbaric sport, so savage that many players died. The Big Four dominated: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn. Carlisle’s team, denigrated for its Native American players, was – ironically – praised for “sportsmanly conduct and clean play.” Carlisle’s innovations under Warner’s tutelage – intricately orchestrated plays, the forward pass – pushed football to mature beyond boorish brutality.

Three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin (Bomb; The Port Chicago 50; Most Dangerous) deftly balances the exhilarating glory of Thorpe’s story and early American football history with the inequity and inhumanity of the Native American experience. His outrage at these atrocities is most palpable when he discusses Thorpe’s double gold victory at the 1912 Olympics, for the pentathlon and decathlon. While Thorpe won under the U.S. flag, he was actually not an American citizen, despite his indigenous heritage: another dozen years lapsed “before Congress would pass a law extending citizenship to all American Indians.”

With contagious excitement, Sheinkin enthralls readers with the Carlisle team’s – and Thorpe’s – stupendous feats. Abundant historical photographs enhance the story. If Undefeated seems overloaded with superlatives, Sheinkin meticulously supports his proclamations of “firsts, mosts, bests” with 30-plus pages of citations. In his acknowledgments, he recognizes that Thorpe’s was “one of the most inspiring stories [he’s] ever written about – and one of the most heartbreaking.”

Despite the bad and ugly, good triumphs here. Never excusing the adversity Thorpe and his community suffered, Sheinkin highlights the “bright path,” compelling readers to learn, admire, and bear witness to the “world’s greatest athlete.”

Shelf Talker: In Undefeated, three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin tackles the unparalleled achievements of Jim Thorpe and the all-Native American team that helped shape modern football.

Review: “YA Review,” Shelf Awareness, December 14, 2016

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2017

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