book review

“Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand

Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend 
Ballantine Books, 2001
Trade paperback, 399 pages
ISBN 0-449-00561-5


In Seabiscuit Laura Hillenbrand tells the classic American story of the underdog. A mud-colored horse with a crooked leg and not much ambition, Seabiscuit became the icon of rags-to-riches fame and accomplishment for an American population beaten down by years of the Great Depression.

In her riveting narrative Hillenbrand explains how Seabiscuit’s fame arose from the synchronous convergence of three men:

  1. trainer Tom Smith, the last true plainsman and horse whisperer
  2. owner Charles Howard, a former bicycle repairman who made a fortune by introducing the automobile to the American West
  3. jockey Red Pollard, a scrappy fighter and drinker, blind in one eye, who carried the works of Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson around in his pockets

Hillenbrand’s ability in narrating the stories of these three men and one horse accounts for the astonishing success of the book. “This is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel,” one member of our book group said. That novelistic quality is no accident. In a conversation with the author bound into the trade paperback edition of the book, Hillenbrand says:

The most important book I read while writing the book [Seabiscuit] was [Michael] Shaara’s masterpiece, The Killer Angels. I sought to accomplish in my book what Shaara accomplished in his: to recreate history with the texture of a novel [. . .] his book is a splendid example of how to illuminate character with telling detail. His book underscored for me the importance of searching for minutiae about my subjects that would say the most about who they were. 

Just as remarkable as the unlikely rise of Seabiscuit to racing stardom is the story of how Laura Hillenbrand overcame severe chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) to write the book. Her story is just as inspiring as her subject’s.

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown

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