Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reviewing While White: Undefeated

by Sam Bloom, KT Horning, and Megan Schliesman

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you posted a review of this! I was excited to read this book but also wasn't expecting so much back history of the school and its football team before Thorpe is introduced to the story - while reading it, I realized how absolutely necessary that was.

I agree with what has already been written about Sheinkin needing to add more information about the brutal conditions and racism accompanied with the boarding schools. I wish I had the book in front of me, but a mighty long holds list meant I had to return it weeks ago so everything following is from memory and may not be exactly how it was in the book: I recall somewhere in the beginning chapters Sheinkin mentioned laws that had been passed to take away land and said something along the lines of "this book isn't about that history, but it's necessary to know about it to understand what happened." It's like he was trying to tell readers from the beginning that this book isn't going to focus on "that" history but it'll be peppered in from time to time. Is this enough?

He briefly mentions how students had to pick new Christian names by pointing to them on the chalkboard, the humiliation of cutting their hair, and in many cases not being able to communicate with or relate to their own families after being gone for so many years. Other examples of racism are portrayed throughout the book, such as the scene of walking down the street and a white man saying to the group that they needed to go in the road to let a white person pass... and then got punched in the face, the constant references to "savages" in the newspapers covering the games, etc.

As a teen librarian, I want the teens that I serve in the library and classrooms to understand that there's a whole history they're not learning and I think this book will be a great stepping stone for opening up conversation. What I really don't know, and it may take reading it a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time to get closer to finding out, is just how much more information on the brutality and racism there should be covered in this story. Would it require just a few more paragraphs? Another chapter? It's something I'm still struggling with.

Debbie Reese said...

My copy is in the to-be-read pile. Maybe I can get to it this week.

I love the convo approach you did, and shared with RWW readers.

I can't look at Thorpe and remember the recent efforts, on the part of his family, to have his remains at home on their reservation. Right now, his remains are in Thorpe, Pennsylvania. That's one of my questions about the book... where does it end?

What opportunities does it provide, for readers with little/no info to learn about boarding schools and Native life--then, and now (with the now part being that his family wants his remains at home rather than as a tourist attraction in a town far from his home).

Sam Bloom said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ren. I think maybe the section you're referring to is on page 8, with one of the paragraphs beginning, "The shameful history behind Indian Territory is not the subject of this story, but it's important to know--it shaped the world Jim Thorpe and the other Carlisle School students would grow up in." And yes, I too struggle with that question: is this enough? I don't know.

And thanks to you too, Debbie! I had no idea about the fight Thorpe's family was in to get his remains returned to them. I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to tell you that the book ends with the return of his vacated Gold Medals to his family in 1983. That definitely makes for a clean finish to the narrative, but you've definitely given me pause. I know your tbr pile is probably about to break through the ceiling of your house, but if you end up reviewing it do let us know so we can direct folks to your site.

Cindy Dobrez said...

Sheinkin's book is titled: Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team and that is what he delivered. In fact, he delivered more. For teens who know nothing about Indian boarding schools, those opening chapters provide them with an introductory background on these schools. Seeing the contrasting photos of what the schools did to break the Indian of his culture says as much as another paragraph or chapter of description could do. The eyes alone in those photos tell the story. Throughout the book, the privileges of the team are mentioned, and then in contrast, the prejudice against the team by the media, the other teams, our government, the Olympic Committee...

I learned fascinating details about Jim Thorpe, the history of the game (the spiral throw, anyone?), Pop Warner's multi-faceted character (even Sheinkin asks readers to think about Warner's motives and true feelings about his players), and this historic team who won against all odds. Even at the height of Thorpe's success as he prepares to represent the United States in the Olympics, Sheinkin educates his young readers about some of the dehumanizing laws governing native people at the time (control over their own money for instance). And I agree with KT about the parallels to today's treatment of young athletes in the college money machines of the big sports.

There's definitely a need for more nonfiction about Indian history and a whole book about the boarding school industry would be welcome, if less enticing to many teen readers, but is it fair to criticize this book for what we want it to be rather than what it told us it would be? We wrote about this title at Bookends last week: http://www.booklistreader.com/2017/03/10/bookends-childrens-literature/undefeated-the-jim-thorpe-story-for-teens/

Debbie Reese said...

Sam--to Native readers, where his remains are is important. Indeed, some key people have been involved in that case, and, there is also a play about it: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/culture/sports/controversy-over-jim-thorpes-remains-subject-of-play-reading-panel-discussion/

Nina Lindsay said...

I've finally finished this, and I think that where KT concludes with “pretty great,” I’d counter with “pretty good.” Sheinkin is a great nonfiction writer, he knows how to use facts to build story, and does a good job of that here. He clearly intends, as he says in his acknowledgments, to tell the whole story, and I appreciate that. Yet it feels very clear that the heart of the story for him is in the myth of the sport, and it feels like he can’t let go of that myth even while he exposes it through his story. And by the “myth” of the sport I do not mean the true emotion, integrity, or talent, I mean the cash.

I should say: I’m not a huge sports fan. I appreciate athleticism and teamwork (and especially appreciate Sheinkin’s talent in writing a good play), yet cannot see past the exploitation, plenty of which is on display through this story. Why does it take Sheinkin until page 199 to call Pop Warner’s tactics an “unabashed money grab?” Sheinkin exposes it half the time but never calls it, and the other half seems to rely on the shell game of it to build his emotional narrative, as if wanting it both ways.

This is at its most obvious in the game against the Army. Sheinkin only half questions Warner’s assumptions about the player’s motives in the game. He quotes Warner: “On the athletic field, where the struggle was man-to-man, they felt that the Indian had his first even breaks,” then says “It’s hard to know if Pop had this exactly right.” Really? Is it that hard to know that he probably didn’t have it exactly right? And a couple pages later, Sheinkin embraces’s Warners gross call to action (invoking the “Indians Wars” on the field of football play) to excite the reader into this narratively climatic game. To me, he fully sells out the reader here.

Sheinkin clearly wants to honor Thorpe and his classmates in this story, and mostly does. But he seems to repeatedly just miss the point, almost intentionally, to tell the story that he was really set on at the beginning. It’s funny, because the story is there in what he tells, but it’s as if he keeps on refusing to see the whole thing.

I offer this within the context that this is probably way better than most books out there on Jim Thorpe. To Debbie’s question, “What opportunities does it provide, for readers with little/no info to learn about boarding schools and Native life--then, and now”… it provides some, but I find it still slightly whitewashed, and I think it would be a huge injustice for people to take this as the unvarnished truth. Taken as Sheinkin’s short shot put? A very decent show, better than we’ve seen, but which I dearly hope we see bettered.

So how do we leave room, around a white award-winner’s well-done but short effort, for more of the truth? Can we make the industry understand this is the beginning of the sell of this story, and not the end?

K T Horning said...

Nina, after reading your comments, I have to stand by my "pretty great" assessment. Maybe it's because I come to the story as someone who loves the sport of football to begin with. (Emphasis on the sport not the business of it.)

As Cindy Dobrez mentioned above, we have to review the book we have in front of us not the book we wish had been written. Of all the RWW critics, you may have come closest to doing that and I appreciate your comments.

Is this a thorough investigation of the racism and exploitation inherent in the history it recounts? No. But I'm not sure it can be in a non-academic book, especially one for young readers.

What I think it does well is to introduce these concepts in a compelling story that may awaken some young readers and send them looking for more information. Others may just read it as a good football story, but I imagine it'll make them think of the Carlisle team whenever they're watching a modern-day football game and see a forward pass or a 40-yard field goal.

A book can't be all things to all people. But I think there is still great value in UNDEFEATED for all it does do -- it's a great, heart-pounding sports story that also makes us think.

Debbie Reese said...

Wow! Some really good comments here! I really have to get time and space to read this book!

In the meantime, Beverly Slapin's review is at my site now:

K T Horning said...

Thanks for the link to Beverly's review, Debbie!

Nancy Werlin said...

>>. Why does it take Sheinkin until page 199 to call Pop Warner’s tactics an “unabashed money grab?” Sheinkin exposes it half the time but never calls it...<<

I find this denotes respect for the reader, however. Most writers, both in the writing of nonfiction and fiction, train themselves to provide information for the readers to come to their own conclusions. Here, by the time Sheinkin "calls it," he has "exposed it," giving the reader room to weigh the evidence on her own.

Nancy W.