Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: Seabiscuit - An American legend

This book is about a horse and four people around it: the owner, the trainer and two riders.

To be honest, I did not start the book with high hopes. To begin with, it was non-fiction and then it was about a horse. About 10 pages deep, I had an inkling that Laura Hillenbrand was luring me into a trap. I distinctly remember thinking "This is not how one writes a historical account" but I could not figure out what was amiss. The facts were all there, the cross-references seemed to match up and I could find nothing wrong apart from some poetic exaggerations which brought forth gentle chuckles. I circumspectly read through the account of earthquake in San Francisco without realizing anything.

It was just after the first race in Tijuana that I realised what was wrong with the book: It wasn't boring!

I had been working under the assumption that the book would be a dry and painfully accurate account of events, much like the editorial-heavy Barbarians at the Gate. This book, on the other hand, was a complete anti-thesis! The recreation of the historical events is not only accurate, but also very very alive.

I lived with Sea biscuit, saw him make turns and taunt his opponents. I fell head first with Pollard on the rough track, cracking my ribs. I emptied my pockets at the betting booth with Howard. I squatted down and closely examined the tendons of Seabiscuit's hind legs with Tom. I tuned in with 40 million listeners as Sea Biscuit accelerated neck to neck with War Admiral.

I felt it when the spectators were "too full of tension, the type of tension that locks the human throat" because my throat was locked too. I rejoiced as Seabiscuit "coiled up" before the race. I shouted "So long, Charley!" with the Iceman as Seabiscuit took the lead. I understood that "He (Seabiscuit) knew what the track was for, and it wasn't walking." I agreed with Alexander when he told Howard "maybe it was better to break a man's leg than his heart". It did not surprise me that "The National Weather Service switchboard took more phone calls in that week than ever in its history, with nearly every caller asking if the skies would clear for Seabiscuit's race" because I would have called too. I felt the reverence too when "In the paddock the horsemen, virtually to a man, were hoping that if they didn't get it (win the hundred-grander race), the old Biscuit would." I too was going crazy as the announcer shouted "Seventy-eight thousand fans going absolutely crazy, including this announcer!"

There were so many perfect moments when the book could have ended. My only qualm is that it did not and continued into the epilogue. I suppose all that is good has to come to an end and the "end" in this case wasn't as great as the beginning. I would not recommend reading the book and the epilogue in the same sitting, though the epilogue and what comes after is also quite noteworthy. Indeed, "history hides in curious places" and the author's delight in discovering and researching the book is seconded only by her delight in telling the story.

Finally, I resonated with the author's thoughts as she ended her book with the following words of acknowledgement:
My final thanks go to Tom Smith, Charles and Marcela Horward, Red Pollard and George Woolf for living lives of singular vigor and grace, and for giving us the imcomparable, unforgettable Seabiscuit.

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