Monday, November 29, 2010

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2001), is another tale about an American underdog who confounds his detractors and finds glory and fame. I don’t mean to make the book seem trite. It is wonderfully written and reads as a novel, though it’s non-fiction, the story of an American racehorse who caught the nation’s imagination in the depths of the Depression of the 1930s.

The four main human characters are Charles Howard, a man who pulls himself out of poverty by selling automobiles after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the jockeys Red Pollard and George (Iceman) Woolf, and the horse trainer Tom Smith. The eponymously named horse, Seabiscuit, for some readers may seem the real main character. But if anything is fabricated in the book, it is Seabiscuit himself. It’s not that Hillenbrand makes claims for him that can’t be certified. All the races she says he won, he won. The facts of his life and career are clear. Where the fabrication comes in is not through Hillenbrand but through the humans who work with the horse—Howard, Pollard, Smith, Woolf--they’re often quoted talking about what the horse is feeling, what he is thinking, how he likes to taunt his opponents in races by slowing down just enough to let them catch up and then speeding ahead, out of reach. Seabiscuit was an actual horse. He physically existed. But the people in the book, along with the reporters who wrote about him and the fans who idolized him, never knew what the animal actually thought or felt. They invented him as the character at the center of this story, as the projection of their own needs and desires. That’s the horse at the core of this narrative.

The sub titular reference to Legend is no exaggeration. Hillenbrand deeply believes in the Seabiscuit legend, and she is willing to allow some of the mystique and mystery of the story to go unquestioned. She doesn’t try to provide a rational explanation for every aspect of her story. She believes in the mystical man-horse bond. She doesn’t always look deeply below the surface details. Although her book is full of social history from the 1920s and 1930s—indeed, this is one of its primary merits—social analysis is not profound or extended. For example, Hillenbrand points out that the jockeys have a hazardous occupation and few benefits. Owners are particularly worried about the jockeys organizing. When one jockey tries to take up a collection to cover the medical costs of an injured friend, he is accused of trying to form a union. Hillenbrand makes note of these facts but they don’t alter her basic contention that the jockeys are equal partners with the owner in the story she is telling. The fact that horse racing is an enterprise of economic inequality, in which the jockeys are little more than pawns in the ambitions of the men who own the horses they ride, doesn’t come into play here. Hillenbrand sees in the Seabiscuit story and the uproars around him the roots of the contemporary fascination with celebrity and fame. She doesn’t comment on the story as another instance of how in times of crisis Americans have a tendency to become entranced with meaningless trivial events and figures.

Where Hillenbrand excels is in how she builds the story, portrays her characters, and describes the build-up to the races. She narrates the races with uncanny suspense and tension. She makes the Seabiscuit rivalry with War Admiral a centerpiece of the book and builds towards their 1938 match at Pimlico through much of the book. When Pollard is gravely injured, and when Seabiscuit pulls up seemingly lame in a later race, Hillenbrand builds towards still another story of American resurgence. There’s genuine excitement here, and it comes not from cheap devices but from Hillenbrand’s prodigious research, her skills as a writer, and from the story itself.

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