Once you have read through this book, you would realize why the movie felt so flat. It is a book that is difficult to translate into reel mainly because to make the audience relate to the atmosphere and the world in which the characters lived, a lot of background needs to be shown. Difficult to accomplish in that in a few hours, unless you want to be a Cecil De Mills!!!
It is a vanished world for sure. Its incredible to read that a nation can go bonkers over a horse (Seabiscuit made more news space in US than Hitler and Roosevelt in 1938!!!) and that the sport of horse-racing can captivate a whole nation. It would be difficult to recreate that world in print as well, especially to readers who have no notion at all of horse-racing and its history and indeed the passion of it all. I mean, write a book on football or cricket and everyone can relate to it…you would recognize names and remember events. How many can do that with horse-racing especially events in horse-racing nearly 80 years back?!!
The beauty and the biggest accomplishment of this book is that it is able to transport the reader into the world of Charles Howard, Red Pollard, George Woolf, Tom Smith and Seabiscuit so completely that you find yourself literally cheering on Seabiscuit as he runs his greatest race of all at the Santa Anita Handicap race in 1938 with Red Pollard on its back.
Laura Hillenbrand weaves the tapestry of the racing world as it existed at that time – pre Depression and later. She makes the unknowledgeable reader grasp the basic understandings of horse racing – its allure and its dangers in a few chapters. She then talks about the people with whom the book is concerned. We are introduced to the characters of Charles Howard and his innate business sense and his humanity, Tom Smith – the lone plainsman and his thousands of eccentricities, Red Pollard and George Woolf – jockeys who will ride into history with Seabiscuit. And then we are also introduced to the star of the book – Seabiscuit himself. By the time the story picks up, we are already comfortably ensconced in the world of United States in the 1930’s and can feel the living voices of the characters.
All these people’s lives revolve around Seabiscuit and we see their hopes, their anger, their frustration and their triumphs through the book’s pages. What emerges is a real-life fairy tale of the ugly duckling. The horse who was considered unfit for racing and whom only two men understood, the jockey who is blind in an eye (but which he tells no-one about) and suffers horrendous accidents but believes in the magic of him and Seabiscuit, the trainer who has almost a karmic connection with horses, especially with Seabiscuit. Unlikely characters who normally would be considered eccentrics in society, come together and create history.
The author is hugely successful in recreating races which might seem remote to readers who have never cared to see horse-racing of any kind. She makes you a part of it. Passages which describe the heat of the races makes you feel almost as if you are on the back of the horses. Since for readers like me, who are completely ignorant of race history, she keeps the mystery of the outcome of the race until at the very end which makes reading the pages breathtaking.
By the end of it, you feel a part of every sorrow and every triumph that the horse and the people who loved him went through. You feel drained out after a race as people actually might have (differing in degrees of course!!!). You feel angry at the injustice that is inflicted on the horse and the people around it and for that reason, you clap the harder when horse answers with the only way it can – by winning against tremendous odds.
This is an immensely readable book and as I said, not knowing the subject is not a barrier at all. A small part of a vanished history is recreated in all its glory and you feel a twinge of nostalgia for it. And we are made richer in knowing the same…and you do fall in love with Seabiscuit – head 0ver heels!!!