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Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe [Paperback]

Kate Buford

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Book Description

March 1 2012
The first comprehensive biography of the legendary figure who defined excellence in American sports: Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest all-around athlete in U.S. history.

With clarity and an eye for detail, Kate Buford traces the pivotal moments of Thorpe’s incomparable career: growing up in the tumultuous Indian Territory of Oklahoma; leading the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team to victories against the country’s finest college teams; winning gold medals in the 1912 Olympics pentathlon and decathlon; defining the burgeoning sport of professional football; and playing long, often successful—and previously unexamined—years in professional baseball.

At the same time, however, Buford recounts the difficulties Thorpe faced as a Native American. We also see the infamous loss of his Olympic medals, stripped from him because he had previously played professional baseball, an event that would haunt Thorpe for the rest of his life. We see his struggles with alcoholism and personal misfortune, and how he came to distrust many of the hands extended to him. We learn the details of his vigorous advocacy for Native American rights while he chased a Hollywood career, and the truth behind the supposed reinstatement of his Olympic record in 1982.

Here is the story of a complex, iconoclastic, profoundly talented man whose life encompassed both tragic limitations and truly extraordinary achievements.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books; Reprint edition (March 1 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803240899
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803240896
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 2.4 x 22.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 703 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #685,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

“Impeccably researched. . . . This retrospective is not the first to tackle the complex life of Jim Thorpe, but it’s the most comprehensive. . . . [It] captures Thorpe’s breathtaking highs and heartrending lows.”—Kirkus


“[Buford] knows about mythic heroes and draws a complex portrait of Jim Thorpe: from his superhuman athletic talents to his all-too-human flaws.”—Washington Post


“[Buford] lays a firm, clear historical groundwork for the reservation life and Indian world in which Thorpe grew up in Oklahoma. . . . [It] brims with life in its depiction of Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s. . . . Through Thorpe’s struggles and striving, Buford recreates this period of Los Angeles history in all its glorious strangeness.”—New York Times (Editors’ Choice)


“This is the definitive biography of a legendary figure in American history, in and out of sports. . . . Essential.”—Library Journal


“A full account of the legend and tragedy of Native American sportsman Jim Thorpe . . . Buford’s account brims with detail, all of it relevant to the telling.”—Booklist


“A professional biography has proved what sound research and skillful writing can do: reveal a singular man, animate the times of his life, and illuminate the complexities of our world today, which Jim Thorpe helped to shape.”—American Heritage

About the Author

Kate Buford is the author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. She has written for the New York Times and has been a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition and American Public Media’s Marketplace.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Most researched book to date, not a page turner though Feb. 13 2011
By J. Warner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've always known this incredible story had, amazingly, never been written before by anyone other than someone in the 1950s, and was THE story ripe for a national best seller. I was so confident "The Jim Thorpe Story" had finally arrived when I learned of this new book that I sent a second copy to a professor friend sight unseen when I ordered mine. I knew it was going to be the one book I stayed up all night with and read cover-to-cover. A month later it's sitting on the stand, the bookmark about halfway through. The author has so much research into this that I'm puzzled by what a weak storyteller she is. I wanted it to be great...but it has no cadence, and is agonizingly deflating by what appears to be the author's lack of intuition on what is interesting and remarkable, and what isn't. There is less than a page, for instance, on the boat ride over to Stockholm for the Olympics. I don't even know how long it took. Odd blurt-outs such as "Jim was an excellent ballroom dancer" are editorialized remarks made in passing with no further comment. I asked my friend if it was me "just not getting it" and he hadn't finished the book either. Still, whenever I do finish it, I'll know so much more about the life and times of Jim Thorpe than I did before...I already do. It just wasn't the fun adventure.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Miss This Dec 4 2010
By Marilyn Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a must-read book for anyone who cares about biography, history, sports, native Americans, Hollywood, or the human condition. It has it all in the form of the charismatic Jim Thorpe, a spectacular talent whose exploits would be hard to believe if such a trustworthy and gifted writer as Kate Buford weren't describing him. How could a football player catch his own punts?... have reactions "so fast that sometimes you couldn't follow them with the eye"?.... leave his nearest rivals so far in the dust one is tempted to think of Secretariat?... And how could someone as beloved as Thorpe been so unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals? In Buford's hands, the man's larger-than-life accomplishments and all-too-human failures and contradictions are balanced and given historical context-- and the reader can't help but mourn his passing.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jim Thorpe- an outstanding bio of a 20th century superstar Dec 3 2010
By LL Flippin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
For anyone interested in the famous Olympic decathalon champion and for some, the greatest football player ever, who happened to be a native american , read this book! And for anyone interested in the early history of track & field, football, the "real" Pop Warner, baseball, the AAU/Avery Brundage/amateurism, the birth of professionalism, native american politics, racism and Hollywood- this book has it all. Kate Buford has done a superior job of definitive research supporting her bittersweet portrait of a national legend.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe" Dec 8 2010
By Jim Campbell - football historian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Kate Buford's "Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe" is an informative and entertaining read. Her years of exhaustive and intensive research show--virtually every page is a "learning experience." Of course, all the legendary aspects of Thorpe's remarkable life are explained in nuanced detail (football All-America, Olympic glory and disgrace, major league baseball player, and pro football pioneer,) but what separates this Jim Thorpe book from the others is her unique treatment of Thorpe's post-playing career--a subject woefully glossed over in previous biographies. I've never seen such a meticulous accounting (detailed, but far from dull) of his Native American activism and his Hollywood days, as well as his everyday life. Especially interesting was how East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk merged to become the town of Jim Thorpe (Pennsylvania) without Thorpe ever having been there. Anyone the least bit interested in Thorpe, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, or Native American life would do well to purchase and read this all-encompassing work.

Jim Campbell - football historian
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So Much For Hollywood Endings Nov. 26 2011
By Thomas J. Burns - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There is more than a touch of irony in that biographer Kate Buford's other major work chronicles the life of actor Burt Lancaster. Lancaster was chosen to portray Jim Thorpe in a 1950 film biography while Thorpe was still alive. The film, though bittersweet, ends with a glimmer of light for the aging athlete. This work at hand, vigorously researched and deglamourized, tells a tale in quite an opposite trajectory.

Buford takes time and care to depict the curious contradictions of Oklahoma Indian life for a child born in "Indian Territory" [Oklahoma Territory] in 1887. The conjugal boundaries between "whites" and a variety of Native American tribes were never as clear as we might be tempted to believe today. Thorpe's father Hiram descended from English immigrants; his mother from the Potawatomi tribe was also of French Roman Catholic roots.

Throughout his minority years Thorpe, legally an Indian by residence, suffered and profited from the U.S. government's somewhat awkward efforts to undo at least a small portion of several centuries of injustice. He and his siblings were eligible for special boarding schools, though with the obvious pain of separation and uprooting. It is in this system that Thorpe found himself enrolled at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a college freshman.

It was at Carlisle that Thorpe made the history he is remembered for today. While Buford documents the school's many irregularities and shortcomings, it is worth noting that Carlisle played a demanding football schedule, always on the road, against flagship universities who evidently felt no embarrassment of association. Army was a regular opponent; Thorpe ended the gridiron career of one cadet, Dwight David Eisenhower, on the field of play.

Carlisle's athletic director and football coach, Glenn "Pop" Warner, gets a substantive and circumspect evaluation. He came to Carlisle with something of a questionable past, but at a time when college football was evolving from its scrum physicality to a more wide open strategic contest. By today's standards Warner would have been an NCAA rules nightmare; he tweaked the system endlessly both on and off the field. That said, Warner did field very good teams: the fact that a majority of his players were of Indian ancestry allowed him to meld squads of both strength and speed.

Warner did not, then, invent an offense to suit Thorpe's unique combination of speed and strength; rather, Thorpe took an existing system on his shoulders and displayed himself in the large media venues, as Carlisle's exclusive road schedule played to his advantage. Easily the nation's most recognized collegiate player, Thorpe positioned himself and his coach, Warner, to the next challenge, the 1912 Olympics.

The stories of Thorpe's spectacular performance at these games and the subsequent stripping of his medals are well known. Rather surprisingly, the issue of money and amateur collegiate reimbursement has scarcely changed since Thorpe's day. [Thorpe received an illicit stipend for summer semi-pro baseball, a common practice tolerated until Thorpe's superstar status brought new scrutiny.] By Buford's account, much of the sports world--certainly that in the U.S.--never changed its favorable outlook toward the Carlisle star, though Thorpe himself was profoundly distressed until his death.

In his post-Olympic world, Thorpe had more immediate concerns: post collegiate football was a raggedy collection of sporadic pro franchises and intermittent barnstorming tours. Sports money gravitated toward one object: professional baseball. Thorpe accordingly threw himself into the pro game, assigned to New York and the Giants' bigger than life manager, John McGraw. It is intriguing to read of the interplay between the two. McGraw did respect Thorpe's talents; to his credit, he talked up his rookie's progress in the face of an increasingly critical press corps. In truth Thorpe could not hit the curve, the downfall of many a man of promise. Privately McGraw found his charge distracted by his outside fame, ambitious, and somewhat defiant in a game of consummate teamwork under an all abiding authority. Buford observes that at this stage of his 20's Thorpe probably needed a father figure; McGraw could be many things, but probably never that.

Thorpe returned to football and played in a variety of professional and exhibition settings, including the NFL's Oorang Indians of LaRue, Ohio, in 1923 at age 36. By this stage his physical skills had diminished markedly. But here his emotional difficulties joined forces with a dangerous consort, alcohol. By 1931 Thorpe's personal life was in free fall when a photographer by chance captured Thorpe digging ditches for a living. This began a pattern of sorts of Jim Thorpe "rediscoveries" when Americans periodically discovered their hero down on his luck and rallied to relive the memories. The 1931 episode led to a number of minor but sustaining appearances in Hollywood B Westerns--as many as 50--and for a time Thorpe attempted to organize Indian "extras" in films. But a third marriage to an opportunist during a Mexican alcohol blackout literally ended Thorpe's professional usefulness. At the premier of the aforementioned Burt Lancaster film in 1950, Thorpe was literally "falling down drunk" and died, broke, in 1953.

Buford does an admirable job in portraying the considerable affection and respect that Thorpe still engendered in the final years of his life, though in truth he had done nothing remarkable in the forty years between the Olympic conquests and his pauper's death. However, she is realist enough to concede that Thorpe's greatest contributions were in fact the memories and the myth. Sadly, the abuse of those memories took flesh and blood form after his 1953 death. In what has to be one of the most bizarre post mortems of recent times, two competing Pennsylvania cities [neither near Carlisle] appear to have joined forces to purchase his body to boost a flagging local tourist economy. The new single village, named Jim Thorpe, became embittered over the limited returns, to the point that Thorpe's mausoleum was desecrated by 123 hammer blows in 1964. So much for Hollywood endings.

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