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Book Review: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

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Seabiscuit is not about a racehorse. Laura Hillenbrand's biography tells the story of more than just the horse itself – she also writes about the people who came together to create one of the greatest icons in sports history.

This is the story of a four-point meeting of the minds. Hillenbrand starts out introducing the reader, in detail, to each of the characters. First, there is Charles Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit, who was at first a major player in the rise of the automobile industry who then got into the adventurous hobby of horseracing.

The reader then meets Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith, a calm, collected and utterly secretive cowboy. Only then is Seabiscuit actually presented, a knobby-kneed little horse who looks as though he can't run. When Tom Smith sees him, however, he knows that he can work the horse into something amazing.

Then along comes jockey Red Pollard, a man blind in one eye but still able to ride. These four persons come together to make up Team Seabiscuit, a force unleashed on the track. There are hardships; there are celebrations; there is death. Seabiscuit gives the reader all of this plus a history lesson.

Hillenbrand's prose is very sharp. Her sentences don't float around – instead, she says what she means and that is that. There are no long, frumpy sentences with boisterous language. Hillenbrand delivers quick, smart phrases that create the emotions that the history requires.

She also has an eye for penning likeability in characters. Most likely Hillenbrand reported the truth on each person's personality, but still, she had to put it in a way where it would create an emotional attachment between character and reader, and Hillenbrand has done just that. Troubling scenes create tension inside the reader, because they actually feel for the people (even if they have been dead for 50 years.)

Anyone who knows about Seabiscuit probably knows his legacy. But that does not mean that Seabiscuit is a less exciting read. Hillenbrand puts the reader right in the shoes of the jockey, hinting at little images and descriptions that one might not know, or even understand if they are not a jockey themselves.

Hillenbrand's second success is the fact that she teaches those of us who know nothing about horseracing a thing or two. She points out the trials of jockeys, the dangers of racing, and even subtly, the bad habits of betting. She brings to the surface how hard it is to lose, but also what one is faced with when they win.

In the end, we are sad to part with Pollard, Smith, Howard, and of course, Seabiscuit. But all along we knew we had to, as this legacy cannot keep going. The history has already been written, and so the reader has gone into the book knowing that the story must end.

And Hillenbrand gives it to us straight – she doesn't skimp on the details, no matter how depressing they are. When the end comes, we miss Seabiscuit – but so does the racing world, and in that, Hillenbrand succeeds again, in bringing the past to the present.

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  • Ed

    Wow, it sounds like Hillenbrand did an amazing job on the book. I’ve already seen the movie but this has definitely made me keen to read the book, I’m actually quite keen to listen to it as an audio book as I found it – it definitely sounds like it will be worth it.