Three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin offers a new work of nonfiction as riveting as any historical novel you are likely to read this year. Undefeated exhumes football’s early years and a period in American history not as far removed from today as we might like to believe.
Why do you think this story of a football team from the early 1900s will resonate with a 2017 audience?
At heart, Undefeated is about Jim Thorpe and his teammates taking on enormous obstacles, on and off the field. I feel like once readers get to know the characters, and what they’re up against, it’ll be easy to start rooting for them. I’m a huge fan of underdog sports books like The Boys in the Boat or Seabiscuit—and I really couldn’t care less about rowing or horse racing. But those stories pull you in, and you find yourself worrying and cheering, as if these races from the 1930s were taking place before your eyes. I tried to capture this same edge-of-your-seat feeling with the football games in Undefeated. And I think it adds to the drama that modern readers have no idea how Carlisle’s big games turned out.
You fit so much into Undefeated—the formation of the Carlisle Indian School, the early years of football, Pop Warner’s backstory, the origins of the Carlisle football program, the rise of Thorpe and his teammates and on and on. Were you aware of all of these strands when you started this project?
Projects always grow on me as I research and begin to outline. I started off with the idea of making the rise of Jim Thorpe the spine of the story, and that didn’t change. But as I read more, I kept finding more to put in. After lots of trial and error, I decided to start with three stories: Thorpe’s childhood and teen years, Pop Warner and the early days of football, and the Carlisle Indian School and the formation of their football team. I get all three stories going right away in the book, and sort of juggle them until they all come together. And of course, I wound up writing way too much, and had to cut some of my favorite scenes.
“The Carlisle team changed everything by inventing a new and more exciting (and slightly safer) way to play. They saved the sport—and made it a lot more fun to watch.”
What was the most surprising fact you discovered while researching this story?
I was really stunned by the details of just how violent early-day football was—far more dangerous than it is today. Basically, it was loosely organized combat. The forward pass was not allowed, and there was no place for speed or strategy. Teams ran what were called “mass plays” over and over—walls of men crashed into each other, and guys openly punched each other in the pile-ups. In the year 1905 alone, 19 young men died playing football. Colleges were beginning to ban the sport, and momentum was building to ban football entirely in America, when the Carlisle team changed everything by inventing a new and more exciting (and slightly safer) way to play. They saved the sport—and made it a lot more fun to watch.
Beyond Thorpe and Coach Pop Warner, were there any other figures in this story that really caught your attention—people you wished you could have written more about?
One was Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of Carlisle. He’s a complex and controversial guy, a man who cared about the future of Native American kids at a time very few white American leaders did. Yet the school he founded, which was designed to strip Native kids of their culture and assimilate them into white America, inflicted tremendous and lasting pain on the people he claimed to be helping. Pratt is an important figure in my book, but I focus more on the Jim Thorpe years at Carlisle, after Pratt was gone. Besides, this is a sports book, and I didn’t want to go too heavy on the history.
You use the term “Indians” throughout Undefeated. Can you explain why you opted for that term, as opposed to more contemporary terms like Native Americans, indigenous or first nation’s peoples?
Where possible, I refer to the specific nation a person is from, rather than the more general Native American or American Indian. But those terms are used a lot too, when speaking of diverse groups, like the Carlisle team. The reason “Indians” comes up so often in the football scenes is because that’s what the Carlisle team was called—the Carlisle Indians. It’s what newspapers called them, and what they called themselves. In the epilogue, I take up the issue of modern sports teams using the name “Indians,” or other stereotyped variations, and ask the reader to think about the appropriateness of this.
By contemporary terms, Thorpe was mixed race, but seems he thought of himself—and was pretty universally described—as “Indian.” Why was this?
It’s true, Thorpe always referred to himself with pride as “Indian.” From the start, his Native heritage—Pottawatomie on his mother’s side, Sac and Fox on his father’s—was a central part of his life. As a young kid in what was then Indian Territory, he literally watched some of the Oklahoma land rushes, as the government opened Native American land to settlers. And he was later sent to a series of Indian boarding schools. All of this must have shaped the way he saw himself, though it’s not something he talked about publicly. In terms of how non-Native people saw him, that was pretty simple. He wasn’t white.
“I love the challenge of picking stories and figuring out how to tell them. It’s like trying to solving a puzzle that has a thousand possible solutions, most of them wrong.”
You started your nonfiction career writing history textbooks—which, it seems, you didn’t much enjoy. What is different about writing historical nonfiction that you find so appealing?
When I visit schools I always start by confessing that I used to write history textbooks. Kids get mad at me, and rightfully so. But some forgive me when I explain that I’m trying to make amends with the narrative nonfiction books I’m doing now. For me, the beauty is that I get to focus on people and the stories, as opposed to dates and facts. I think nonfiction for young readers should be as exciting and entertaining as fiction. I love the challenge of picking stories and figuring out how to tell them. It’s like trying to solving a puzzle that has a thousand possible solutions, most of them wrong.
When you were a young reader, what was the first historical narrative that you remember capturing your imagination?
I was captivated by stuff I didn’t think of as history—tales of shipwrecks and lost treasure, outdoor adventures, survival stories. I was learning history, but I didn’t know it! And there were also some historical novels that really blew me away, like Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, a very well-researched book about a famous heist in Victorian-era England. The mix of history and thriller in this book really stuck with me. I’ve been trying recreate that feeling ever since.
What are you reading now? What further reading would you recommend to readers of Undefeated?
I’m always reading a mix of things; work and pleasure reading tend to get mixed up, and I like it that way. Right now I’m fascinated by a book called Operation Overflight, the memoir of Francis Gary Power, the U2 pilot who was famously shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. I’ve also been reading the amazing letters of Abigail Adams, for a younger fiction series I’m trying to get started. And I always seem to have a graphic novel or two going. For recommendations, let’s see . . . Ghost by Jason Reynolds, which won over my non-sports loving daughter, and Joseph Bruchac’s Jim Thorpe: Original All-American. For page-turning nonfiction, check out Lost in the Pacific by Tod Olson, Sabotage by Neal Bascomb (who also wrote a great sports book called The Perfect Mile) and Dive by Deborah Hopkinson.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Undefeated.
Author photo credit Erica Miller.