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Review: David Maraniss bio honors Native legend Jim Thorpe

On the shelf

Path Light by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe

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

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Jim Thorpe was both a man and a myth that endures a century after his story unfolded. The life of the Native American athlete had the arc of tragedy – a messy upbringing; fame in college football; two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics, later revoked – a struggle made exponentially more discouraging by the treatment of the indigenous people of his day. He has been written about in dozens of books, commemorated in a film and revisited in countless articles, essays and speeches.

David Maraniss’ new biography, Path Lit by Lightning, transcends myth and delves into the guts of Thorpe’s life, using extensive research, historical nuance and bittersweet honesty to tell the story of a gifted and complicated man tell. Maraniss is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of a dozen books on American political and sports history. As Associate Editor of The Washington Post, he uses his lifelong immersion in sports and politics to tell Thorpe’s story.

Thorpe became a sensation in 1911 when he kicked four field goals

Thorpe (third from right, second row) in 1911 with his football teammates at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Coach Glenn (Pop) Warner stands behind him.

(Cumberland Historical Society)

Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, was one of thousands of Indigenous children shaped and distorted by the government philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man,” a concerted attempt to preserve every trace of Indigenous heritage through transformation of the child to obliterate into a simulacrum of a white man. The locus of this effort has been Indigenous boarding schools across the country. Thorpe ended up there, was separated from his family and sent across the country to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

In Carlisle, Thorpe joined children from tribes across the country. Some of these children had tremendous sporting potential, and for Thorpe and other local athletes, Carlisle became a gateway to an exciting life of struggle and success on the field. His talent was spotted by Carlisle sporting director Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, who could see that Thorpe was in a very different category even among many gifted players.

“His teammates could sense he was different,” Maraniss writes. “They had seen his easygoing manner, his lack of nerve, the toughness of his body and his resilience to pain, the rare combination of strength, speed, stubbornness, instinct and agile grace, the touch of danger and the spark of electricity.” Thorpe and that Carlisle football team became a sporting phenomenon. Playing back and forth against teams from elite East Coast colleges, they accumulated an overwhelming track record. (Sweetest: beating the army team at West Point, symbolic revenge for the devastation the U.S. military wreaked on their people.)

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

For Indigenous players, the Carlisle team was the apotheosis of camaraderie and honour: Thorpe recalled the end of a successful season, writing: ‘I felt like I wanted to fling my arms across the field and the goal posts and hold on to them. so that they never escape me with their memories and traditions.”

Carlisle football was a warm-up for a feat that would make him one of the most recognizable athletes in the world. Young Thorpe, champion of all sports, joined the Olympic team in 1912 and performed at the Games in Sweden that year. Maraniss’ account of the dizzying atmosphere of the Swedish Olympics, where European royalty presented wreaths of flowers and silver trophies to winners who partied all night, is a journey back in time to a simpler era. Thorpe won gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon. The King of Sweden declared him the greatest athlete in the world.

And then: catastrophe. Before the Olympics, Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball at Carlisle during the summer semester and received modest pay for it. After his Olympic victories, the press dug up Thorpe’s record of being paid to play, violations of the Olympic rules that govern an athlete’s amateur status. Pop Warner and the Carlisle president went into a defensive crouch and denied knowledge of Thorpe’s baseball activities (Maraniss shows they certainly knew). Thorpe took the fall and his medals were stripped from him, although his poor treatment drew widespread sympathy around the world.

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

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

(Linda Maraniss)

He emerged from the ordeal “hardened but not ashamed,” writes Maraniss, and the injustice of his punishment only added to his fame. He married a fellow Carlisle student, Iva Miller, and was drafted by the New York Giants to play baseball. Thorpe and his bride honeymooned on a baseball world tour that saw the Giants battle the Chicago White Sox before wowing crowds in Australia, China and Japan, ending with a run through Egypt, Italy and France. Thorpe’s calendar year became a cycle of baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall and winter at home in Oklahoma, where he enjoyed fishing and hunting. He played professional football in the Ohio League, the forerunner of the National Football League, and today Thorpe is considered one of the founders of the NFL.

But the schedule was demanding, and Thorpe had a dark side: an urge to drink and fight, a carelessness with money, and a neglect of his family. And the reckoning that all professional athletes face: the deterioration of athletic ability with age, a battle all players ultimately lose. The unrelenting humiliation that Thorpe and other local athletes endured just to earn a living makes for chilling reading. An all-Natives team that Thorpe joined couldn’t just play ball; It had to put on carnival side shows in indigenous regalia, banging a drum and dancing.

The rest of Thorpe’s life was a constant rush for money and jobs. One of Maraniss’ challenges is maintaining narrative momentum during this time. For the most part he succeeds, although Thorpe’s pattern – starting strong, then flaring up and then walking away – feels unbearably sad, the waste of so much potential and experience. But Maraniss refuses to portray him as either a failure or a martyr: “Thorpe’s life is best understood not as a tragic resolution but as a somber persistence.”

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

Thorpe (left, wearing hat) is honored by Sweden’s King Gustav V after winning gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games.

(Cumberland Historical Society)

Thorpe made a living, albeit with a shovel. He worked as an actor in Hollywood in numerous supporting roles. He championed Native Americans in the film industry and advocated for studios to use real life Native Americans to portray their on-screen counterparts. He criss-crossed the country, telling his inspirational story and collecting modest fees for doing so. Finally, in 1951, his life was filmed. Though Thorpe was played by a white man (Burt Lancaster) and though the film was narrated in the voice of a whitewashed pop warner, he was largely likable. Thorpe died not long after in 1953. His descendants have since worked to restore his legacy. That summer they achieved the ultimate confirmation: 110 years after Thorpe’s victories, the International Olympic Committee reinstated him as the sole winner in the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912.

“Path Lit by Lightning” ends with the words of Grace Thorpe, Jim’s daughter who was neglected by her father as a child but is determined to cherish his memory: “My father had his faults. Who does not? He was not a businessman and left only a small fortune when he died. He dug trenches to support his family during the Depression when he was too old for athletics. But in his chosen field he had his peers. He stood alone. It was remarkable in size, grade, and potency. He was great.”

Maraniss’ biography does justice to the struggles and triumphs of a truly great man.

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

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-08-04/review-a-legendary-native-athlete-is-restored-to-glory-by-the-olympics-and-a-rich-new-memoir Review: David Maraniss bio honors Native legend Jim Thorpe

Sarah Ridley

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