Hillenbrand, Laura 1967–
Hillenbrand, Laura 1967–
PERSONAL: Born 1967, in Fairfax, VA. Education: Kenyon College, Gambier, OH.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Tina Bennett, Janklow/Nesbit Associates, 445 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Contributing editor/writer, Equus Magazine, 1989–. Consultant for PBS documentary on Seabiscuit, 2002
AWARDS, HONORS: Eclipse Awards for magazine writing, 1998, 2001; Booksense Nonfiction Book of the Year, 2001, William Hill Sports Book of the Year, 2001, and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, 2001, all for Seabiscuit: An American Legend; Los Angeles Book Prize finalist; second prize, Barnes & Noble Discover Award; finalist, Borders Original Voices Award.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
ADAPTATIONS: Laura Hillenbrand served as consultant on the Universal Studios movie based on the book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2003). An audiobook version of Seabiscuit was released by Random Audio-Books, 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: In her debut book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand has written an exciting book that has already won the Triple Crown of publishing: runaway sales of a nonfiction sports book, nomination for the National Book Award Critics Circle Award, and a movie in production by Universal Studios.
The first paragraph of the preface sets the tone of the book."In 1938, near the end of the decade of monumental turmoil, the year's number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn't Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn't even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit. In the latter half of the Depression, Seabis-cuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense and broad-based that it transcended sport.
The heroes in Seabiscuit's story include the burned-out, knobby-kneed racehorse; his jockeys, Red Pollard, down and out and half blind, and George Woolf, cool and cocky but doomed; the aging western trainer Tom Smith, and horseman Charles S. Howard, a Buick dealer and self-made man. Their story played out against the backdrop of the Great Depression. One in four breadwinners were unemployed, foreclosure was common, thousands were hungry. Spectator sports, radio programming, and movie theaters offered an escape and created instant celebrity, even for horses. Enamored of the rags-to-riches myth, Americans were quick to idolize those who exemplified it. Driven by hunger, hope, and heart, Seabiscuit and his crew lived the rags-to-riches dream.
Between 1935 and 1940, Seabiscuit traveled over 50,000 miles by train and was mobbed at every whistle stop. Jim Squires, reviewing the book for the New York Times, says that "as the most popular and most watched personality in the world, he was the 30's era equivalent of Elvis or the Beatles, and, as a sports attraction, could draw bigger crowds than Tiger Woods."
Charles Howard embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of the age. A one-time bicycle repairman, he became a millionaire selling "horseless carriages" to the western United States. He fell in love with racehorses and hired Tom Smith, a closed-mouthed old mustang breaker from the High Plains, as his trainer. It was Smith who saw something in this horse that had run seventeen races before he won. Small, mud-colored and knock-kneed, Charles Howard bought him at auction in 1936 for $8,000 and hired Red Pollard, a one eyed, over-the-hill boxer, as his jockey.
"Silent" Tom Smith set about transforming an animal everyone else called lazy, awkward, and hostile into a great racehorse. Even if no one from the Eastern establishment world of thoroughbreds had ever seen his frontier style of training, everyone agreed that the "Lone Plainsman," as Smith was called, could "talk horse." A newspaper reporter once quipped that "Tom Smith says almost nothing, constantly." Hillenbrand describes Smith, who'd trained rodeo horses and learned his craft from Plains Indians, "[as having] the ethereal quality of hoof prints in windblown snow."
Hillenbrand interviewed aging jockeys and horsemen to give the book plenty of local color. Racing scenes in California in the '30s and her characterization of Pollard and George Woolf were especially praised by the critics.
Pollard is remembered as the poet laureate of jockeys, known for his seemingly telepathic understanding of difficult horses and his love for Emerson's poetry. Hillenbrand's description of Pollard's tumble, which kept him out of a great match race, is especially good: "Jockeys say there is a small, bright sound when hooves clip against each other, a cheery portent of the wreck that is likely to follow … Pollard must have heard it. Fair Knightess' forelegs were kicked out from under her. Unable to catch herself, she pitched into a somersault at 40 miles per hour … Pollard went down with her, his helpless form following the line of her fall, over her back and neck and vanishing under her crashing body. She came down onto him with terrific force and skidded to a stop."
George Woolf was no less competitive as a jockey: In one race, recounts Hillenbrand, "The wire was looming overhead, and Ligaroti was lunging for the lead. Woolf could not move Seabiscuit up. With just a few yards to go, Woolf was frantic…. He had to move Ligaroti back. With twenty yards to go, Woolf tore his hand free, threw out his right arm and grabbed Ligaroti's bridle, just above the bit. Just as the wire passed overhead, he pulled back, lifting the horse's head up and to the left as Seabiscuit's head bobbed forward. Seabiscuit flew under the wire." As Jane Smiley wrote in the Washington Post, Hillenbrand's "effort shows in the details and the energy of her story; her historical figures, horses and people, live and breathe in a lively, lovely way."
All of America was listening to the long-awaited race between Seabiscuit and his arch rival, War Admiral. It was a classic match-up. Seabiscuit was the new West, War Admiral represented the Eastern establishment. The country had waited for more than a year to see them race. In the climax of the book, Hillenbrand recounts "the greatest race in history," run at Pimlico Race Track in Maryland on November 1, 1938, with all the excitement of first class sports reporting.
That Seabiscuit: An American Legend was written at all is a story of courage all its own. In 1987, a virulent case of food poisoning left Hillenbrand bedridden for ten months, fighting fevers, chills, and profound exhaustion. Doctors could not make a definitive diagnosis: some thought she had contracted AIDS, others suspected multiple sclerosis. Since there was no clear diagnosis, some doctors, as well as some friends, thought it was merely psychosomatic. "I had difficulties with just about everyone taking it seriously at first," she said. Finally she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Hillenbrand felt then—and still does now—that it is a ridiculous name for such a debilitating disease.
CFS is a disease that leaves many of its victims completely disabled and unable to take care of themselves. "This illness is to fatigue what a nuclear bomb is to a match," she says. "It's an absurd mischaracterization." In a Washington Post interview, Jennifer Frey wrote that "she is thirty-three years old and can't walk a block without becoming incredibly tired. Her morning shower exhausts her. Vertigo causes the words on the computer screen to dip and weave as she types."
"Random House editor Jon Karp once said that Seabiscuit is a metaphor for my life, and he's right," Hillenbrand commented. "The subjects that I've written about—the men and the horse—were radically different individuals, but the one thread that pulls through all of their lives and through the events that they live through together is the struggle between overwhelming hardship and the will to overcome it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Hillenbrand, Laura, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Random House, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 3, 2001, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, review of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, p. D4.
Booklist, September, 1, 2001, Bill Ott, review of Seabiscuit, p. 35; January 1, 2001, Dennis Dodge, review of Seabiscuit, p. 900.
Boston Herald, August 10, 2001, review of Seabiscuit, p. 42.
Business Week, March 26, 2001, review of Seabiscuit, p. 27.
Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 2001, review of Seabiscuit, p. 62.
Forbes, March 5, 2001, Mark Rotella, review of Seabiscuit, p. 116.
Guardian (London, England), August 4, 2001, Stephen Moss, review of Seabiscuit, p. 9.
Library Journal, April 1, 2001, Patsy E. Gray, review of Seabiscuit, p. 106.
London Review of Books, October 4, 2001, Marjorie Garber, review of Seabiscuit, p. 35.
Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2001, Susan Salter, review of Seabiscuit, p. 11; July 1, 2001, review of audio version of Seabiscuit.
New York Review of Books, July 19, 2001, Elizabeth Hardwick, review of Seabiscuit, p. 4.
New York Times, March 6, 2001, Michiko Katutani, "No Beauty, but They Had the Right Horse There," p. B7.
New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2001, Jim Squires, "Can Do! Once upon a Time There Was a Knock-kneed, Mud-colored Runt of a Horse. His Name Was Seabiscuit …," p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, March 26, 2001, Daisy Maryles, review of Seabiscuit, p. 24; January 1, 2001, review of Seabiscuit, p. 75.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), Max Davidson, review of Seabiscuit.
Time, April 2, 2001, Jesse Birnbaum, review of Seabiscuit, p. 72.
Times (London, England), Allan Mallinson, review of Seabiscuit, p. 15.
Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2001, Alan Lee, review of Seabiscuit, p. 10.
US Weekly, May 7, 2001, Phoebe Hoban, review of Seabiscuit, p. 48; April 2, 2001, Sarah Goodyear, review of Seabiscuit, p. 74.
Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2001, Frederick C. Klein, review of Seabiscuit, p. W9.
Washington Post, March 9, 2001, Jennifer Frey, "Against the Odds: Laura Hillenbrand Surmounts Illness to Cross the Finish Line with 'Seabiscuit'," p. C01.
Washington Post Book World, March 18, 2001, Jane Smiley, "Track Star," p. T05.
Romance Reader, http://theromancereader.com/ (December 2, 2001), Cathy Sova, review of Seabiscuit.