Some of the football fans at Reading While White (Sam, KT, and Megan) have read Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, 2017) and are finding it extraordinarily discussable. If you are familiar with Sheinkin’s books you’ll be Unsurprised (hehe) to learn that it has garnered 4 starred reviews. We can’t imagine it won’t be discussed later in this year as a major award contender. Recently we had an email conversation wherein we weighed things we greatly appreciated against questions we still have. The conversation is below, with a few tweaks for the sake of coherency.
Sam: I loved so much of this book, but I think there is A LOT to talk about with the choices Sheinkin made.
KT: If you were expecting the book to be about the Carlisle Indian School, you might be disappointed.It's actually about the Carlisle football team which was so influential in the development of modern football. Jim Thorpe is the central figure but he is just one of the many star players that Sheinkin writes about. Thorpe went to Carlisle specifically to play football because he wanted to play on the greatest team at the time – maybe of all time, once Thorpe was was added to the team. Anyway, the boys on the team were treated very differently from other students at Carlisle – they had their own dorm, got good food, etc., something that contrasted with the conditions for the others. So there was a really big incentive for the athletes to excel because they didn't want to be treated like one of the regular kids. But even so, they were really exploited (kind of like college players today) because they brought so much money into the school. I thought Sheinkin did a really good job of writing that part of the story. The parallels to modern football are fascinating.
Megan: I agree, KT. I actually started this book and could not put it down. The stories of the athletes are so compelling. And there are so many fascinating stories about how this team influenced the way football is played – including the forward pass! The game owes so much to the Carlisle Indian School team and individual athletes there.
Sam: Speaking of the forward pass, Megan, that particular section is one of the most thrilling bits of writing I’ve seen in years. (It’s on pages 120-123, if you have the book and want to follow along.) Sheinkin recounts the way Carlisle fullback Pete Hauser’s “lordly throw, a hurl that went further than many a kick,” set the powerful Penn football team and fans back on their heels. This is one of countless times in Undefeated where Sheinkin writes about football in such a skillful way that fans of the game will certainly be in heaven, but football haters (I know there are more than a few of you out there!) will also be compelled to keep reading.
KT: Yes! I loved the story when Thorpe kicked the football and then ran down the field to catch it himself. It was also interesting to learn about their coach, Pop Warner, who really helped to develop the Carlisle team but who wasn’t really the most admirable person. His ultimate betrayal of Thorpe was terrible. And there were just so many interesting personal stories of other teammates who were also great athletes and were so influential in the development of modern American football. They were the first football players to figure out they could run around, rather than through, the other team, and they also practiced and practiced to increase the length of their field goals, kicking distances we take for granted today but that were unheard of in the early 20th century.
Megan: At the same time, I came away from the book thinking that if I did not have prior knowledge that the Indian Boarding School System was brutalizing not only to students but their families, and that policies forced Native children to attend, I would not come away from this book understanding this. I think all but one of the Carlisle athletes he briefly profiles went to Carlisle if not willingly (and sometimes eagerly, at least as outlined here), then because their family wanted them too. That is so counter to the overall narrative of boarding schools with which I’m familiar. And at the least, I wanted an author’s note contextualizing the experience of these athletes at Carlisle in the larger story of Indian Boarding Schools, so that readers can understand that this was an experience forced on generations of Native children and had a profound impact on them and their families. It was psychically cruel, in addition to the physical cruelty that children often experienced.
Still, I thought Sheinkin did a good job of pointing out the elite athletes at Carlisle had preferential treatment—better food and conditions—compared to the grimmer reality for most.
KT: I agree, Megan. All those haunting before and after photographs of the students when they first got to Carlisle, and then afterwards when they had been forcibly assimilated speak volumes. But I also agree with Megan that an author’s note would have been helpful for readers who don’t know much about Indian Board Schools in general.
Sam: There are moments when Sheinkin seems to remember the brutal facts (such as in the Epilogue, when he writes about the difference in experiences between athletes and non-athletes: “[I]t becomes clear that these schools inflicted enormous and lasting pain on entire generations of young people”). In the acknowledgements Sheinkin admits to struggling “to find some kind of balance between stories about this thrilling team… and the harsh realities behind the stories.” Personally, I don’t think he entirely succeeded. I’m not a fan of didacticism, but like Megan and KT, I wanted more of the “harsh realities” Sheinkin alludes to in the above quote. I think he owed that to young readers, and while he gave glimpses, they were too few.
(Plus, let’s be honest: Sheinkin is such a great writer, surely he could have included more analysis of this complex and painful part of history without it turning his audience off.)
Megan: In fact, I was struck by his choice to offer a brief mention of how racism is playing out today in terms of Native people and football when he brings up the controversy surrounding the Washington R**skins team name. It felt almost tacked on in the chapter it was part of, and yet I was glad he acknowledged it. (This topic, too, could have been further discussed in a Note.)
KT: Even with its faults, I still think it’s a pretty great book overall. But, again, we’re all reading it as non-Native critics. I’ve given a copy to a colleague here at the UW-Madison School of Education who is Lakota. He’s a football fan, too, and he knows a lot about the Carlisle Indian School, in general, and the story of this team. He also recommended an adult book on the subject by Sally Jenkins called The Real All Americans. He’ll let me know what he thinks about the Sheinkin book once he’s read it. I’m eager to see what he has to say and, with his permission, I’ll share his comments when they come in.