A Complicated Yet Inspirational Life – “Path Lit By Lightning” By David Maraniss
Review By Jeff Benjamin
“Complicated things CHALLENGE us most,
HURTS us the most, and there we LEARN the most.”
– Bradley B. Dalina
“Fact are stubborn things” – John Adams
Mining through the life of Jim Thorpe has always presented to researchers with unique challenges.
Beginning during his lifetime, Thorpe has been the subject of numerous bios where quite a few authors “fell for” a few exaggerations of the great athlete.
Robert Wheeler’s thoroughly researched 1970s Thorpe work, consisting of eyewitness accounts from over 200 people, has been the best that others have been measured against.
Sadly, Thorpe’s story has not resonated with nor been portrayed very much with a new generation of Americans in the 21st century. After all, the only Hollywood movie made on Thorpe was the 1950 picture starring Burt Lancaster.
But now it’s Dave Maraniss’ turn!
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has turned his sights on to the Sac & Fox Native-American sports giant with his new work entitled “Path Lit By Lightning.”
The result – A sweeping revisit for old and new readers alike who can hope to comprehend Thorpe’s legendary life, with all the ups and downs and how he fought through them.
What is different about Maraniss’ book is that the author successfully draws parallels of American history “running” (pardon the pun!”) alongside the life of Thorpe. Smoothly woven into Thorpe’s life is the existential prejudicial hatred towards Native Americans, from the 1830 period of Chief Black Hawk and Andrew Jackson right up to President Theodore Roosevelt dedicating Mount Rushmore alongside names mentioned and described in chronological order such as Phil Sheridan and beyond going forward.
All these events and personalities would exploit Thorpe and many Native-American youths, culminating in the rise of “Indian Schools,” of which the school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, would justifiably take note. Unlike the Thorpe movie of the 1950s, the Carlisle Indian School was anything but a so-called perfect campus, with its sign “Kill the Indian, save the Man” displayed at its entrance in the quest to transform the Indian into an “American.”
Yet it was here that Thorpe’s athleticism was discovered by Coach “Pop” Warner. Maraniss shows Warner to be not only important to the rise of Thorpe to athletic immortality but as a “Founding Father” of the Football game millions today love.
But Maraniss also shows another side of Warner.
People are complicated, and Warner sure has his downside, from financially exploiting his Native American stars, including Thorpe, then later on hiding behind Thorpe’s “inferior ignorance” when he loses his 1912 Olympic medals for violating the so-called Amateur rules, of which Warner also took advantage.
This tragic “opportunity” against Thorpe also leads to the rise of Avery Brundage, a figure in the sport against which there is no shortage of harsh criticism against in the 20th century and beyond. What is great about Maraniss’ work is that he attempts to portray the psyche of Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic teammate, who later on runs the USOC & the IOC with an iron fist, which the author shows quite compellingly.
Like with any work, there are issues with the book this writer came upon. The first was the non-inclusion of Thorpe’s performances at the Decathlon/Heptathlon Olympic trials to make the USA team, performances which, according to others, only add to the Legend.
Also of dispute is Maraniss’ portrayal of Thorpe as penniless in his last days. Perhaps he may have been down, yet perhaps income was coming in from his appearances as well, and perhaps Thorpe, who, as Maraniss writes, generous to a fault, sent financial help to those who reached out to him in need (something that the legendary Jesse Owens, who never made the megabucks either, was known to generously do as well!).
Perhaps, as Maraniss writes, Thorpe’s 3rd wife Patsy, a complicated person as well, “managed” the money in her own way as she saw fit. It seems no author has ever successfully “pinned down” Patsy Thorpe even until the end, when her husband’s remains at her behest wound up in an area of Pennsylvania which he never set foot in while alive and became a bitter contentious fight amongst family, supporters pro & con, eventually involving the highest federal courts, whose rulings are bitterly debated about into this day.
However, what Maraniss does show throughout his life is that while Thorpe might have been “down” at times, he was never “out.” Thorpe’s perseverance in all the prejudices and adversities is a quality that probably can never be explained by any author, but is written about by Maraniss as inspirational to the reader nonetheless, which adds to the flow of the book!
In the end, Maraniss successfully echoes Wheeler and all the other Jim Thorpe biographers – Olympics, Major League Baseball, Football, Basketball – even Brundage grudgingly admitted as well- He truly was one of the Greatest Athletes who ever lived!
One hopes that the attention given to the book can lure readers towards the new upcoming Jim Thorpe movie that has been in the works and is going forward right now! With the inspiring quality of Jim Thorpe’s perseverance behind them, no doubt the movie can reach successful fruition!
Bell Lap – To purchase a copy of “Path Lit By Lightning,” go to –
For an excellent excerpt from the book, we suggest this read from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2022/08/08/jim-thorpe-book-pop-warner/, by David Maraniss