I had heard a lot of things about Jim Thorpe. After all, some people argue that Jim Thorpe was the greatest athlete of the 20th century. But after reading this picture book biography, I learned that Thorpe’s accomplishments meant much more than being a great sports star.
From the day he was born, Jim Thorpe’s parents knew he was special. When he was born in 1887 in the Indian Territory that would become the state of Oklahoma, his mother gave him another name: “Wa-tho-huck,” which means “Bright Path.” I like how Bruchac ties the title and the story into Thorpe finding the right path, and how nobody knew just how far that path would take him.
Jim’s athletic skills were evident early on, as he played outdoors and hunted with his father and twin brother. Like most twins, Jim and his brother were close, even though they were not exactly the same. When they raced or wrestled, Jim was always a little ahead of Charlie. But when the boys were sent to Indian boarding school,his brother Charlie always seemed a little ahead of Jim. The story of the brothers encouraging each other is a wonderful example to reinforce to young readers that everyone has their strengths, but we need to encourage each other not to give up in those areas that are a challenge.
Not only does Bruchac highlight Jim Thorpe’s path, but he also tells the story of the unfair treatment of Native Americans at that time. Indian boarding schools did not provide the same education offered to whites. Indian children were educated only to be maids or laborers and schools were designed to cut them off from everything that made them Indians.
Jim moved from school to school and overcame many family tragedies. His brother died of pneumonia from the terrible conditions in the schools, his mother died of an illness, and his father died of a snakebite while working in the fields. Overcoming obstacles and perseverance is the main theme of this inspirational tale. The story is not only an inspiration, but also a testament to what his generation had to go through.
Nelson’s illustrations illuminate Jim’s path and I think the textures in each one are pretty unique. At the end of the book is an author’s note where Bruchac further describes the success that Thorpe gained, and a timeline of important dates in Jim Thorpe’s legacy.
Author: Joseph Bruchac
Illustrator: S.D. Nelson
Publisher: Lee & Low Books, Aug. 2008
Reading Level: Ages 4-8