“He is far and away the most interesting character in that mythical kingdom I call Sports World,” notes author Lipsyte, who depicts Ali’s mercurial character in a way that engages the reader. Lipsyte also instructs the young reader, providing a context for further study of race relations, the Vietnam War, and other significant aspects of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The reader senses the affection and respect Lipsyte feels for Ali as an athlete and as a person. Equally apparent, however, is the skepticism with which Lipsyte views unverifiable stories from the Ali mythology that seem too pat, too slick, or too contrived. Thus it seems appropriate for Lipsyte to conclude that he likes Ali but does not truly know him: “Muhammad Ali is a wise man and a fool, a person of principle and a greedy huckster, a generous, miserly, smart, silly, kind, cruel spirit of our times.” Ali therefore remains something of an enigma.
For a brief work, Free to Be Muhammad Ali is surprisingly informative and revealing. It is especially valuable for young readers given the traditional popularity with them of biographies of sports and entertainment figures. Moreover, Lipsyte’s style, integrity, and ability to select facts to create a balanced portrayal have freed the work from flaws that often mar biographies. Fictionalizing of events, for example, is not done in this book.
Scholars studying juvenile and young adult biographies of athletes often...
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