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

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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 ...

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

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Overview


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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Buford (Burt Lancaster: An American Life) covers Thorpe's life of "high triumphs and bitter despair" in extensive detail. Thorpe (1888-1953), a "mixed-blood" Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma who starred for the legendary Carlisle, Pa., Indian school's college football team, won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, prompting the king of Sweden to declare him "the most wonderful athlete in the world." The next year, however, Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals after it was discovered he had violated the amateur athletic code by playing minor league baseball. The loss haunted him throughout his hardscrabble life in which he abused alcohol, married three times, constantly needed money, and was an absentee father. His peripatetic story included myriad roles: avid hunter and fisherman; professional baseball player in the major and minor leagues; pro football player; bit actor with often degrading nonspeaking Indian roles in many westerns as well as in other movies, including King Kong; merchant marine during World War II; security guard at a Ford plant; bar and restaurant owner; supporter of American Indian causes; and regular speaker on the lecture circuit. Buford reports the facts and dispels many fictions about this American icon. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Diligently researched . . . Buford lays firm, clear historical groundwork for the reservation life and Indian world in which Thorpe grew up . . . Thorpe, in Buford’s account a likable and engaging if feckless man, seems tragically destined to wander forever, the fastest itinerant in the world.”
            -Jay Jennings, The New York Times Book Review
 
“A professional biographer 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
 
“Compelling . . . Exhilarating . . . Buford is persuasive when she insists that, both for better and for worse, Jim Thorpe’s true story is indeed stranger than most fictional tales of rising and falling heroes.”
            -Michael R. Stevens, Christianity Today Books and Culture
 
“This is the definitive biography of a legendary figure in American history, in and out of sports . . . An essential purchase.”
            -Library Journal
 
“Buford . . . knows about mythic heroes and draws a complex portrait of Jim Thorpe: from his superhuman athletic talents to his all-too-human flaws.”           
           -Steven V. Roberts, The Washington Post
 
“This book is written with razor-sharp clarity, rock-solid scholarship, and a prose that is as elegantly executed as it is at times heartbreaking. Native American Son, meticulously researched, is a book that finally sets the record straight to provide justice at last to a legitimate American hero.”
            -Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen
 
“An absorbing American story.”
            -Steve Kaufman, Louisville Courier-Journal
 
 “Impeccably researched . . . This retrospective is not the first to tackle the complex life of Jim Thorpe, but it’s the most comprehensive . . . Captures Thorpe’s breathtaking highs and heartrending lows.”
            -Kirkus
 
“From the opening paragraphs I realized that Native American Son was going to be gripping and illuminating. Kate Buford not only tells us a great deal we never knew about a legitimate American icon, she tells us a great deal about an America of which we may not have been fully aware, and does so in splendid prose.”
           -Ira Berkow
 
“As an athlete, Jim Thorpe was a force of nature. His achievements, across the board, remain unsurpassed. For many years we have needed a fair and comprehensive story of his life. Now we have it. Kate Buford's biography of Thorpe is a first-rate example of the genre. She has written—with clarity, insight, objectivity, and inspiration—a definitive work. Here is an evocation of triumph and tragedy, ans a uniquely American story.”
            -N. Scott Momaday

Library Journal
Jim Thorpe was arguably the greatest all-around American athlete of the first half of the 20th century, a star in track and field, football, and baseball, but his life was filled with struggle and disappointment. He was the recipient of honors and acclaim, yet Buford (Burt Lancaster: An American Life) makes clear he was subject to slights and racism as an American Indian in a far-less enlightened time. The author draws on extensive research and interviews to show not only Thorpe's athletic triumphs but also a dysfunctional personal life marked by alcoholism, divorce, and strained relations with his children. His forfeited Olympic medals were reinstated 30 years after his death, but Buford depicts Thorpe's legacy as one of a hero dishonored in his own country. This is the definitive biography of a legendary figure in American history, in and out of sports. An essential purchase.
Kirkus Reviews

An impeccably researched biography of one of the world's greatest all-around athletes, a symbol of racial injustice and untapped potential.

This retrospective is not the first to tackle the complex life of Jim Thorpe (1888–1953), but it's the most comprehensive. From his childhood in Oklahoma to career as a struggling actor a half-century later, journalist and biographer Buford (Burt Lancaster, 2000) chronicles a life filled with incomparable athletic achievements, government-sanctioned discrimination and wasted opportunities. Mischievous, overly generous, prone to alcoholism and habitually restless, Thorpe gained prominence on the gridiron at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an Indian boarding school where the half-Caucasian, half-Indian halfback played for legendary coach Pop Warner. He exploded into public consciousness in 1912, leading Carlisle to a national championship and winning gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the Olympics. Controversy arose, however, as a prior dalliance in professional baseball would result in his medals being stripped (a lifelong struggle to restore them ensued, though they would not be returned until decades after his death). Stints as a professional baseball and football player followed, but Thorpe's poor fielding precluded stardom in the former, while the latter's nascent status resulted in less-lucrative opportunities than his talents warranted. After his prodigious athletic gifts deteriorated, he constantly struggled with marital problems, finding work and fiscal insolvency. The 1951 movie Jim Thorpe—All American immortalized him, though when he died two years later, more than four years passed before his remains were laid to rest in the newly christened Jim Thorpe, Pa.—a result of family, community and government squabbles. Buford's attention to detail is largely a strength, but it occasionally breeds long stretches in which the minutiae of Thorpe's endless cycle of hopeful new beginnings followed by failures to capitalize obscure the narrative core—the tragedy of a groundbreaking athlete succumbing to obstacles both external (and unjust) and internal (and self-inflicted).

Captures Thorpe's breathtaking highs and heartrending lows, but falls just short of his all-around excellence.

Steven V. Roberts
Buford's first book was a biography of actor Burt Lancaster (who played Thorpe in the movies), so she knows about mythic heroes and draws a complex portrait, from his superhuman athletic talent to his all-too-human personal flaws.
—The Washington Post
Washington Post

“[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
New York Times

“[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)
Booklist

“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
American Heritage Publishing Staff

“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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375413247
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/26/2010
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 9.50 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Buford

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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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2010

    Best Thorpe biography yet !

    A must read for anyone seriously interested in Jim Thorpe. It will be THE definitive book on Mr Thorpe despite very strong previous books by Wheeler and Newcombe. Outstanding coverage of all areas of his life with excellent details. The quality of the photographs, many rarely seen, added to the value of this book. I have been a fan of Thorpe's for many years and have read all the books about him. I cannot recommend this book too highly!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 12, 2010

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