Cindy: It’s March. Madness time. And I’m a basketball fan. But here I am writing about football. It’s all Steve Sheinkin’s fault. His new book, Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, made me forget about college basketball for a few days.
The book launches with a three-page “Tryout” that will have readers weaving through the rest of the book’s chapters as quickly as one of the walk-on tryouts Thorpe ran through an entire opposing line.
“Sorry, Pop….Nobody’s going to tackle Jim.”
Plenty of people tried to tackle Jim in one way or another. He faced prejudice against Native Americans from his school, who believed in “breaking the Indian of his culture,” and from the U.S. Government, who treated their Olympic track hero very shabbily. (I couldn’t help but think of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, widely considered the greatest female athlete of all time, who faced sexism on the field just a few decades later.)
Then there were those who were literally trying to tackle him—bigger, stronger football players from the Big Four he and his traveling Carlisle Indian School team faced down in relentless succession, year after year.
Undefeated taught me so much about Jim Thorpe, his legendary coach, Pop Warner, the history of the game of football, and the history of our country’s horrible relationship with native people. Like other good writers of nonfiction for teens, Sheinkin makes note of what history has not recorded, is clear about distinguishing fact from informed conjecture, and presents controversy in a way that encourages his readers to consider it and form their own opinions. And he spins a great story while he’s doing it. Undefeated: touchdown!
Lynn: I love a great underdog story, and Sheinkin tells this one so well. As with his other books, he writes with perfect pacing and a compelling voice.
Another powerful element of this book: Sheinkin’s masterful choice of supportive details. Demonstrating a clear understanding of his audience, he brings in examples that illuminates Thorpe as an individual, as well as his historical moment. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate the deeply humiliating treatment of native people than to include the difficulty Thorpe faced when, at the age of 23, he traveled to Sweden to represent the U. S. in the Olympics. To get travel funds, he had to send a telegraph to the government agent at his reservation—the government considered Native Americans wards, not citizens allowed to control their own money. Nor will readers forget the harrowing description of the crushing intake process at the Carlisle School, a place whose motto was to “kill the Indian. . . and save the man.”
An outstanding selection of photographs and historic illustrations enrich an already wonderful book, while the extensive source notes and works cited showcase Sheinkin’s careful documentation. Undefeated is another winner from a master of narrative nonfiction.