“Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand

Surprise! The book everyone is reading and loving stars a stocky, funny-looking hero with four legs -- the champion racehorse Seabiscuit.

Topics: Books,

"Seabiscuit: An American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand

Ideally, you wouldn’t just find Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” in bookstores. It would be next to Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole or Lee Wiley CDs as well — anywhere you’d go to look for love songs.

The music that arises from the pages of “Seabiscuit” may be from the past, but it’s no less sweet or clear. “Seabiscuit” not only records the love song of three men — owner, trainer and jockey — for an oddly shaped horse who possessed potential visible only to them. The book itself is also Hillenbrand’s love song for those men and for the magnificent creature himself, who became something like the familiar of his human companions, a protective spirit in the face of ridiculous odds and cruel luck.

Charles Howard, the first to enter the picture in “Seabiscuit,” thrived on bad odds. The bicycle repair shop he opened in 1903 San Francisco bloomed into a Buick dealership after Howard began servicing the few autos that existed in the city. He made his fortune in the aftermath of the city’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake, when automobiles ceased being novelties and became the only possible means of transporting the dead and injured. The combination of the money he accumulated and the need to find an escape after the death of a beloved son led Howard to thoroughbred racing, and eventually to Tom Smith.

Smith, the genuine version of the sort of character Cormac McCarthy fakes, was a man who bridged two epochs, having gone from being a young plainsman in the frontier days of the American West to training horses for the British cavalry in the Boer War to training horses for rodeos and races. Taciturn to the point of utter silence, Smith did his talking to horses, whom he believed could be communicated with if you just bothered to observe them. He became known as a healer as much as a trainer, mending hurt horses with his homemade liniments and, seemingly, the empathy of his touch.

Hired by Howard to be his trainer in 1934, and with the tycoon’s money at his disposal, Smith nevertheless preferred taking on horses that were considered bargains — not as a way to save money, but because those animals’ talents were overlooked. He found what he was looking for when he encountered Seabiscuit in 1936 at Suffolk Downs racetrack outside Boston.

Seabiscuit was descended from the legendary Man o’ War and possessed the temperamental imperiousness of all that great horse’s offspring. But he also looked like everything a racehorse shouldn’t be: square, squat, inclined to portliness, low to the ground with short legs and knees that didn’t straighten, and a racing gait so strange that his hind hoof often whacked his front ankle while he was running. Something in Smith told him he had a find; maybe he’d picked up on the hauteur he later claimed radiated from the animal.

Even more necessary than the understanding between trainer and horse is the symbiosis between horse and rider. And it was Smith who brought in Red Pollard, a down-on-his-luck jockey whom he’d run across earlier. Smith decided that Pollard was the man to ride Seabiscuit.

There’s no denying that part of the appeal of “Seabiscuit” is its old-fashioned quality. There’s the aw-shucks story of how Smith chose Pollard — a choice made, Hillenbrand says, when the trainer introduced horse to jockey and Pollard produced a lump of sugar from his pocket. There’s the book’s endearingly retro language. (One chapter, quoting a sportswriter of the time, is called “The Dingbustingest Contest You Ever Clapped Eyes On.”) And there’s the heart-tugging account of how Seabiscuit’s incredible fame was a respite for a Depression-weary country. (The horse was the most frequently mentioned news personality of 1938, beating out even FDR and Hitler.) But evoking the past is not the same thing as nostalgia. No one is likely to long for the world Hillenbrand describes, a world of horses raced to the point of exhaustion or worse on small-time racing circuits.

The horrors Hillenbrand describes jockeys enduring are even more awful: starvation diets, purgatives, summertime jogging in rubber suits, even the last resort of swallowing a tapeworm’s egg. And even those horrors pale when she gets to the jockeys who were killed or injured in the sport. These men destroyed their bodies for the sake of a sport that paid them little, often kept them in slave conditions and gave them no insurance. Pollard was lucky enough to work for a man who considered him family. It was the charity of Howard and his wife, Marcella, that rescued Pollard when, in a horrendous accident, a horse fell on him during a race and crushed his chest. And it was Pollard’s friend George Woolf who took his place atop Seabiscuit for some of the horse’s victories.

But for a story whose appeal is basically one of winning against the odds, “Seabiscuit” never gathers itself up into a phony, olden-days coziness. Howard, Smith, Pollard and even Seabiscuit are given the chance to act as if their fate were not predetermined — an unusual gift for characters who populate a legend. Hillenbrand allows them to breathe. She has an astounding eye for detail: The stories of the races in which Seabiscuit shattered speed records are turned into infinities where the possibilities of winning or losing reveal themselves in infinitesimal increments. These passages are almost unbearably suspenseful.

Hillenbrand also has a good sense of what to leave out, which may account for the book’s near-perfect pacing and length. Introducing her human characters, Hillenbrand doesn’t, thank goodness, waste any space on the begats, those snoozer passages that you have to endure in biographies and histories when you just want to get to the story. Seabiscuit’s heritage gets more attention than anyone else’s, and that’s just as it should be.

If you’re crazy about animals, part of the reason to love this wonderful book is obvious. Without sentimentality or anthropomorphism, Hillenbrand writes of an animal’s intelligence and character. (Seabiscuit was the slyest of horses. His favorite trick, when he enjoyed the lead in a race, was to slow down just enough to allow his closest competitor to catch up with him. Then, giving the other horse just enough time to taste a chance of victory, Seabiscuit would issue a dismissive snort and leave his rival in the dust.)

The heart of its appeal, though, is its seamless combination of triumph and melancholy. Like any great success story, “Seabiscuit” is ultimately sad. Glory always burns brightly and briefly, and the racing life of a horse (and Seabiscuit’s was longer than most) is even briefer than most kinds of success. We’re always aware that the colt’s victories are keeping something at bay. And so it’s when he’s retired, and the principals go their separate ways, that the book becomes most like a love song, reveling in the exquisite sadness of knowing you held something in your hands only to see it scatter to the winds.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>