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, in the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and played major league baseball for the New York Giants. 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.
... goes beyond the myth and into the guts of Thorpe’s life, using extensive research, historical nuance and bittersweet honesty to tell the story of a gifted and complicated man ... Maraniss’ account of the giddy atmosphere of the Swedish Olympics, where European royalty bestowed wreaths of flowers and silver trophies on winners who caroused all night in celebration, is a time trip back to a simpler era ... The rest of Thorpe’s life was a constant hustle for money and jobs. One of Maraniss’ challenges is to keep up narrative momentum through this period. For the most part he succeeds, though Thorpe’s pattern — to start strong, then flame out, then walk away — feels unbearably sad, the waste of so much potential and experience. But Maraniss refuses to paint him as either a failure or a martyr ... Maraniss’ biography does justice to the struggles and triumphs of a truly great man.
... exhaustively researched ... Maraniss’s choice of book title is itself an indication that his story of Thorpe’s life is as much about sadness and exploitation as it is about athletic perfection. Of what are at least four translations of Thorpe’s Sac and Fox name, Maraniss chose 'Path Lit by Lightning' rather than the more familiarly used 'Bright Path.' Lightning is not merely a metaphor for athletic speed or power. When it illuminates it may do so for only a moment before plunging everything back into darkness. And it can also kill ... The author calmly takes us beyond the brilliance of Thorpe’s early football and track success at the Carlisle 'Indian Industrial School' by calling the place what it really was: a forced assimilation camp ... Maraniss elegantly records Thorpe’s still-unbelievable domination of the 1912 Olympics, and contextualizes it by reminding us that it took place between his 1911 and 1912 college football seasons, which today could have won Thorpe back-to-back Heisman Trophies...But he also emphasizes that in the same calendar year that Thorpe’s gridiron success was laying the ground for professional football in this country and his pentathlon gold medal was earned with a score three times better than the runner-up’s, he was not permitted to become a citizen of the United States ... Of the greatest injustice of Thorpe’s life, the stripping of his 1912 Olympic medals because he had previously played professional minor league baseball, Maraniss offers fresh and infuriating research ... But Maraniss’s greatest contribution to the factual record of a transcendent athlete is his account of the years after Thorpe’s glory ... yet for all this, Maraniss continually yet gently returns to an affirmation.
... showcases Mr. Maraniss’s abilities as an indefatigable researcher and a deft prose stylist. But at times the march through Thorpe’s days is simply exhausting, whether because of the author’s self-described 'obsession' with his subject or his unwillingness to leave out even minor details that he has so carefully unearthed. While Thorpe’s life is fascinating, poignant and instructive, the book drags in many places, and thus some readers might find it hard to reach the finish line, which comes only at the end of a whopping 25 (!) page epilogue ... What redeems the book’s length is Mr. Maraniss’s determination to reveal Thorpe as a man in full, whose life was characterized by both soaring triumph and grievous loss. For those who would see Thorpe’s story instead as a tale of ineluctable declension, the author insists otherwise ... In this way, Mr. Maraniss unwittingly invokes the work of the scholar Gerald Vizenor, who describes this process as 'survivance,' an idea that rejects simple narratives of Native victimhood and disappearance and posits instead that the act of persistence in the face of overwhelming odds is a significant cultural and political triumph. By those lights, Jim Thorpe is unquestionably a champion.