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ARC Review: Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe


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

Path Lit by Lightning, David Maraniss’ latest book, is a biography of the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. The book takes its name from a translation of Thorpe’s Indian name Wa-tho-Huk, which refers to the lightning storm gathering outside as Jim Thorpe and his twin brother Charlie were born. 

The story of Thorpe’s Indian name is the first of many tales about his life that Maraniss takes us through. The author does his best to separate fact from myth, but it’s not always easy given the legendary nature of Thorpe’s life, and the fact that those around him, and Thorpe himself, had their own reasons to sometimes shade the truth.

Maraniss gives us all of Thorpe’s life.  We learn about Thorpe’s early days born into the Sac and Fox tribe in Oklahoma. Then on to his time at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and his performance on the football field and at the 1912 Olympics. 

Maraniss spends quite a bit of time exploring Jim’s Olympic experience, and then showing how his medals were stripped from him. Though Thorpe himself was not blameless, other famous sports figures like Pop Warner and Avery Brundage come in for their share of blame for the circumstances surrounding Thorpe’s Olympic fall from amateur sports grace, and deservedly so.

We also see Thorpe meet his first wife Iva Miller at Carlisle and marry her after a long (and mostly long distance) relationship in 1913. We see him as a professional baseball player, and as president of the newly formed American Professional Football Association, forerunner to the NFL. And there is much more after that about his professional career, his later loves, his carousing, the movie made of his life, and the end of his days in 1953.

Also well documented in this book is the racism and abuse aimed at Native Americans. Much of Thorpe’s early experiences were of forced assimilation (“Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was the philosophy of the founder of the Carlisle School). He dealt with white people’s preconceptions of native people all through his life. It’s a testament to Thorpe’s amazing athletic abilities that he achieved so much under such circumstances.

I liked this book a lot. It’s mostly chronological, but it's not dry and avoids the trap of being a “this happened, then this happened” account of Thorpe’s life. However, Maraniss can and does take some deep dives - some sections of the book go into A LOT of detail. So I found myself getting bogged down in places. 

That means that I found myself reading a few chapters at a time, both to soak in all that was being covered, and to avoid being dissuaded from continuing if the going got too “boggy”. In the end, because I love Maraniss’ writing style, I always looked forward to picking the book back up.

Maraniss is a gifted writer. I’ve read several of his previous books and reviewed one of them here on my blog - A Good American Family. What you expect from a book by Maraniss is a good story, thoroughly told, with thoughtfulness and a touch of humanity. This latest book does not disappoint.

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advanced copy of this book from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley, and am voluntarily providing this review.

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Title: Path Lit By Lightning

Author: David Maraniss

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publish Date: August 9, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781476748412

Publisher’s List Price: $32.50 Hardcover (as of 08/2022)