Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe by David Maraniss #NetGalley #ARCReview #BookReview #WisconsinAuthor

“Jim Thorpe rose to world fame as a mythic talent who excelled at every sport. He won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, was an All-American football player at the Carlisle Indian School, the star of the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and played major league baseball for John McGraw’s New York Giants. Even in a golden age of sports celebrities, he was one of a kind.

But despite his colossal skills, Thorpe’s life was a struggle against the odds. As a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, he encountered duplicitous authorities who turned away from him when their reputations were at risk. At Carlisle, he dealt with the racist assimilationist philosophy “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” His gold medals were unfairly rescinded because he had played minor league baseball. His later life was troubled by alcohol, broken marriages, and financial distress. He roamed from state to state and took bit parts in Hollywood, but even the film of his own life failed to improve his fortunes. But for all his travails, Thorpe did not succumb. The man survived, complications and all, and so did the myth.”

Thank you to David Maraniss, NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an advanced reader’s copy. All opinions given are my own.

I’ve long been a fan of David Maraniss since he wrote When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi some years ago. A Madison, Wisconsin native, Maraniss has a day job in Washington but writes biographies on the side. Path Lit by Lightning (Amazon) is his 12th book. Coincidentally, this biography of Jim Thorpe is coming out just weeks after Thorpe made the news once again, when his Olympic titles were returned to him officially and his records added to the books.

Thorpe was a Native American who was sent to the Carlisle Indian School, one of many institutions in this country that attempted to assimilate the indigenous population and get them to follow the white man’s rule. The school, which taught all ages, was well-known for it’s sports teams, competing against ivy league colleges every season.

Jim Thorpe was not a great student, and he hated school so much that he ran away several times. But when he found sports, his life changed. It turned out that not only did he like sports, he excelled at everything he tried. Under the teachings of Pop Warner (yes, that Pop Warner that all those younger kids’ football leagues are named after) That would lead Thorpe to the 1912 Olympics, where he competed in both the pentathlon and the decathlon. Can you imagine a modern-day athlete competing in BOTH competitions?

About six months after the Olympics, it was “discovered” that Thorpe played minor league baseball for pay prior to the Olympics. I say discovered because no one actually hid the fact that Thorpe played ball; he played under his own name and was in the newspapers all the time. At first Olympic officials said there was nothing to be done because any dispute must be made within 30 days of the games, and it was well past that. But there was pressure from several amateur organizations so Thorpe’s Olympic medals and trophies were taken away from him, despite the fact that other countries regularly paid their “amateur” athletes to train.

David Maraniss does a deep dive into Thorpe’s life, giving great detail to every period of Thorpe’s life. I mean, really deep dive. This is a hefty book with massive amounts of detail, and at times, it did bog down the book. Thorpe’s life is well-documented through the many newspaper stories throughout his playing career in major and minor league baseball, the birth of professional football, and the many odd jobs Thorpe held once his playing days were over. While I appreciate the detail, at times I found myself skimming sections because it was too much.

The author doesn’t have to do much to show the racist feelings against Jim Thorpe and his fellow Native American athletes. It’s really cringing to read some of the excerpts from the newspaper reports of the time. I can’t imagine what it was like to be on the receiving end of such bile. Throughout his life, Thorpe would also use his heritage by saying he didn’t know any better, he was just a poor, ignorant Indian, whenever things didn’t go his way. Maraniss portrays a sympathetic look to Thorpe and his plight, showing how white men repeatedly put him in his place, or screwed him over.

It was sad to read of Thorpe’s nomadic lifestyle after he left the Carlisle Indian School, and how little time he spent with his wives and children. I know the time he spent away from his family was because he was trying to earn money to support them, but he often gave away or drank away his earnings. Other times, he was simply cheated out of money by broken promises from whatever team owner convinced Thorpe to play in their league. After a while of reading about the same pattern over and over again, I found myself skimming those sections because it was heartbreaking.

As sad as Path Lit by Lightning is at times, it’s also a good look at how the world treated indigenous people a century ago, and how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. And in case you were wondering where the title of the book came from, Path Lit By Lightning is the rough translation of Thorpe’s Indian name. Pretty accurate if you ask me.

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