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Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 26, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375413243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375413247
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #685,256 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Buford gives a full account of the legend and tragedy of Native American sportsman Jim Thorpe, considered one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century—ESPN picked him seventh, ahead of Willie Mays, Bill Russell, and Gordie Howe. Bill Crawford’s All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe (2004) might be more popularly written, but Buford’s account, at some 170 more pages, brims with detail, all of it relevant to the telling, from the disastrous divvying up of Native American land that young Jim witnessed in 1890s Oklahoma; to Thorpe’s stellar performances in football, baseball, and track and field; to the stripping of his 1912 Olympics medals because he was paid to play baseball for two summers; and, finally, to the makeshift life he cobbled together after his playing days ended. Buford imparts a sense of the incandescent skills Thorpe applied to his sports, and the discrimination and self-destruction that shadowed him throughout his life. --Alan Moores

More About the Author

I've always been interested in so-called popular culture, especially movies and sports. With both my latest books, I deliberately set out to write a mainstream biography about an important -- and largely unexamined -- figure of the movies (Burt Lancaster) and sports (Jim Thorpe).

By and large books about people in these two areas of American life are treated as sub-genres, not as books on a par with biographies of politicians, inventors, explorers, authors, etc. I felt these two men had had such a significant impact on their respective spheres that their lives merited an in-depth approach. Quixotic? Yes. Satisfying? Oh, yes. I got to immerse myself in Hollywood fact and lore -- and to explore the early history of organized sports, an unexpectedly fascinating and important aspect of our culture. Where does our current fascination with football begin? Read about Thorpe to find out.

Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe was published in hardcover by Knopf in October 2010. It was a Featured Selection of both the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club. In December the biography was named an Editors' Choice by the New York Times. It won the 2011 Larry Ritter Award from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) for the best book about the Deadball Era. SEE my website for more terrific reviews. The paperback came out in March 2012 from the University of Nebraska's Bison Books.

On Thorpeblog ( I report on my journey of writing this biography--from why I chose Jim Thorpe as my subject and the process of researching and finishing the book to taking it on the road after publication... and anything else book-related that comes up.

I am also the author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling biography, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2000. The book was an Editors' Choice and Best Book of 2000 for The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other media. The paperback edition, published in 2001 by Da Capo Press, was named a "New and Notable Paperback" by The New York Times. U.K. hardcover and paperback editions were published by Aurum Press in London, as was a new paperback edition in 2008.

From 1994 to 1999 I was a commentator for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Since 2000 I have been an occasional commentator for "Marketplace," broadcast nationally by American Public Media, and for WMRA, the NPR affiliate in Charlottesville and western Virginia.

My articles have appeared in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, The New York Post, Film Comment, TV Guide, Bluegrass Unlimited and other publications. I have appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, ESPN's Reel Classics and Cold Pizza, PBS History Detectives, BBC Radio 4's Great Lives and other TV and radio programs. At the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, I programmed and presented film series on Burt Lancaster, Michael Powell, Katharine Hepburn, War & Film and Horton Foote.

I enjoy wintering in New York and summering in the mountains of Virginia, where I play my Rockbridge guitar not as often as I should. Ditto for Ishta yoga.

Customer Reviews

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It gives us a glimpse into the times and events that surrounded and formed the individual.
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.
Jim Campbell - football historian
Highly recommended and read her Burt Lancaster bio too, another interesting take on an interesting life.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By J. Warner on February 13, 2011
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.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Marilyn Johnson on December 4, 2010
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.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By LL Flippin on December 3, 2010
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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Jim Campbell - football historian on December 8, 2010
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
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Thomas J. Burns VINE VOICE on November 26, 2011
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.
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