Review: David Maraniss bio honors Native legend Jim Thorpe

On the Shelf

Path Lit by Lightning: The Lifetime of Jim Thorpe

By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster: 672 pages, $33

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Jim Thorpe was each a person and a fantasy, one which endures a century after his story unfolded. The Native American athlete’s life had the arc of tragedy — a chaotic upbringing; glory in collegiate soccer; two gold medals within the 1912 Olympics, later stripped away — a wrestle made exponentially extra daunting by the therapy of Native folks of his period. He has been written about in dozens of books, memorialized in a film and revisited in numerous articles, essays and speeches.

David Maraniss’ new biography, “Path Lit by Lightning,” goes past the parable and into the heart of Thorpe’s life, utilizing in depth analysis, historic nuance and bittersweet honesty to inform the story of a gifted and sophisticated man. Maraniss is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and writer of a dozen books of American political and sports activities historical past. An affiliate editor on the Washington Put up, he faucets a lifetime’s immersion in sports activities and politics to inform Thorpe’s story.

Thorpe (third from proper, second row) in 1911 along with his soccer teammates on the Carlisle Indian Industrial Faculty. Coach Glenn (Pop) Warner stands behind him.

(Cumberland Historic Society)

A member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, Thorpe was certainly one of hundreds of Native kids formed and warped by the federal government’s “Kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy, a concerted try to expunge each hint of Native heritage by turning the kid right into a simulacrum of a white man. The locus of that effort was in Indigenous boarding colleges across the nation. That’s the place Thorpe wound up, separated from his household and despatched midway throughout the nation to the Carlisle Indian Industrial Faculty in Pennsylvania.

At Carlisle, Thorpe joined kids from tribes across the nation. A few of these kids had huge athletic potential, and for Thorpe and different Native athletes, Carlisle grew to become a gateway into an exciting lifetime of wrestle and accomplishment on the sphere. His expertise was noticed by Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Carlisle’s athletic director, who might see that even amongst many gifted gamers, Thorpe was in one other class altogether.

“His teammates could sense he was different,” Maraniss writes. “They had seen his easygoing nature, his lack of nerves, the resilience of his body and his resistance to pain, the rare combination of strength, speed, stubbornness, instinct, and agile grace, the hint of danger and spark of electricity.” Thorpe and the Carlisle soccer group grew to become a sports activities phenomenon. They performed groups from elite faculties up and down the East Coast, compiling an awesome report of wins. (The sweetest: beating the Military group at West Level, symbolic revenge for the havoc the U.S. navy had wreaked on their folks.)

"Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe" by David Maraniss

For Indigenous gamers, the Carlisle group was the apotheosis of camaraderie and honor: Remembering the top of a profitable season, Thorpe wrote, “I felt as though I wanted to fling my arms about the field, the goal posts, and hold them tight, so that with their memories and traditions they might never escape me.”

Carlisle soccer was a warmup for a efficiency that may make him one of many world’s greatest recognized athletes. The younger Thorpe, grasp of any sport he took on, joined the 1912 Olympic group and carried out on the Video games in Sweden that yr. Maraniss’ account of the giddy ambiance of the Swedish Olympics, the place European royalty bestowed wreaths of flowers and silver trophies on winners who caroused all night time in celebration, is a time journey again to a less complicated period. Thorpe gained gold in each the pentathlon and the decathlon. The king of Sweden proclaimed him the best athlete on the earth.

After which: catastrophe. Earlier than the Olympics, through the Carlisle summer season time period, Thorpe had performed semi-pro baseball and acquired a modest fee in return. After his Olympic wins, the press dug up Thorpe’s report of being paid to play, violations of Olympic guidelines governing an athlete’s novice standing. Pop Warner and the president of Carlisle went right into a defensive crouch, denying data of Thorpe’s baseball actions (Maraniss reveals that they actually did know). Thorpe took the autumn and his medals had been taken from him, although his shoddy therapy generated an unlimited quantity of sympathy worldwide.

David Maraniss, author of "Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe"

David Maraniss, writer of “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe”

(Linda Maraniss)

He emerged from the ordeal “toughened but not ashamed,” Maraniss writes, and the injustice of his punishment solely heightened his movie star. He married a fellow Carlisle pupil, Iva Miller, and was recruited by the New York Giants to play baseball. Thorpe and his bride spent their honeymoon on a world baseball exhibition tour, the Giants battling the Chicago White Sox earlier than adoring audiences in Australia, China and Japan, ending with a run by Egypt, Italy and France. Thorpe’s calendar yr grew to become a cycle of baseball in spring and summer season, soccer in fall and winter’s residence in Oklahoma, the place he beloved to fish and hunt. He performed professional soccer within the Ohio League, the precursor to the Nationwide Soccer League, and at present Thorpe is taken into account one of many founders of the NFL.

However the schedule was punishing, and Thorpe had a shadow aspect: an urge to drink and brawl, a carelessness with cash and a neglect of his household. And the reckoning all professional athletes face: The degradation of athletic prowess by age, a battle that each one gamers finally lose. The relentless debasement Thorpe and different Native athletes needed to endure simply to make a residing makes for cringe-inducing studying. An all-Nativegroup Thorpe joined couldn’t simply play ball; it needed to stage carnival sideshows wearing Indigenous regalia, beating a drum and dancing.

The remainder of Thorpe’s life was a relentless hustle for cash and jobs. One in all Maraniss’ challenges is to maintain up narrative momentum by this era. For essentially the most half he succeeds, although Thorpe’s sample — to begin robust, then flame out, then stroll away — feels unbearably unhappy, the waste of a lot potential and expertise. However Maraniss refuses to color him as both a failure or a martyr: “Thorpe‘s life might best be understood not as tragic dissolution but as gritty perseverance.”

Thorpe won gold in the pentathlon and decathlon and was honored by Sweden's King Gustav V

Thorpe (left, holding hat) is honored by Sweden’s King Gustav V after profitable golds in pentathlon and decathlon on the 1912 Olympics.

(Cumberland Historic Society)

Thorpe earned his residing, even when it was with a shovel. He labored as an actor in Hollywood in quite a few bit components. He advocated for Native People within the film business, lobbying studios to make use of precise Indigenous folks to painting their onscreen counterparts. He crossed and recrossed the nation, telling his inspirational story and amassing modest charges in return. And at last, in 1951, a film was made from his life. Although Thorpe was performed by a white man (Burt Lancaster) and although the film was narrated within the voice of a whitewashed Pop Warner, it was largely sympathetic. Thorpe died not lengthy after, in 1953. His descendants have been working to revive his legacy ever since. This summer season they attained the final word validation: 110 years after Thorpe’s wins, the Worldwide Olympic Committee restored him as the only winner of the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912.

“Path Lit by Lightning” ends with phrases from Grace Thorpe, Jim’s daughter, uncared for by her father as a baby however decided to protect his reminiscence: “My father had his faults. Who doesn’t? He was not a businessman and he left only a small estate when he died. He dug ditches to support his family during the Depression when he was too old for athletics. But in his chosen field he had no peers. He stood alone. He was remarkable in magnitude, degree, and effectiveness. He was great.”

Maraniss’ biography does justice to the struggles and triumphs of a really nice man.

Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.