How I Became Interested in History by Reading About a Horse
How in the world did I ever start reading this book?
This beautiful hardcover book was given to me as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. I was.... skeptical, to say the least, about reading a novel that essentially amounted to a biography of a horse. First of all, I really had no affinity for horses, and second, horse racing always seemed kind of brutal and dumb to me (still does). However, what I found when I started turning pages was an excellent glimpse into a unique time in American (and world) history. Laura Hillenbrand is nothing if not a great storyteller who stays true to the era in which she writes, and she makes this very clear with dozens (maybe even hundreds) of interviews with the people who were really there, tons of old newspaper and radio broadcasts which she draws upon, and myriad facts and details about the time. Somehow, she manages to tell the story without it being too dry.
The photos in the hardcover edition were the icing on the cake, too. This is a book I wanted to take care of, and I have - it's at the top of my bookshelf right now in my living room. I'd gladly lend the book out to a friend who wanted to read it.
Seabiscuit took me by surprise. Going in, I didn't have high hopes because I don't really give 2 craps about horses or racing, but I found myself eagerly waiting to be transported back into the lives of the individual people in the 1930s.
The classic match
Seabiscuit quickly became an American icon in the 1930s, a time during which we really needed a symbol of hope in many ways. It's kind of unfortunate that a racing horse became that symbol, but the Great Depression had us held down pretty low, and the fact that it was a horse is a true sign of the times. Seabiscuit was representative of the country as a whole in many ways, not the least of which was his short stature (considerably smaller than his rival, War Admiral) and bum legs, one of which kept ruining key race moments and threatening his career.
As Hillenbrand describes in her book, Seabiscuit himself transcended simply being a horse as far as meaning went. He came to symbolize America itself during a time when the country was on some hard luck, and up against some seemingly insurmountable odds. He came through in the end, beating his rival in spite of having a bum leg and not really looking the part of a champion, and his story came to give a great deal of hope to millions who listened on the radio and tens of thousands who saw Seabiscuit race in person.
Something in Seabiscuit woke up a part of me that really loves history. Ever since finishing it, I've read (or listened to) dozens of books dealing with history. Laura Hillenbrand's excellent prose made the story even more compelling, but the history really tells itself. It's an amazing, terrific ride that our country went on at a unique time in our history.
I went back later and read Hillenbrand's next novel, "Unbroken." Again, the author really brings history to life, some of it crossing over from Seabiscuit's time as well, as Louis Zamperelli, a long distance runner against all odds, is drafted into military service in World War II, is shot down by Japanese planes, and spends an unfathomable amount of time in the ocean. Incredibly, this is only the beginning for Zamperelli, who Hillenbrand uses to give a human touch to WWII history and to give us insight into what happened to prisoners of war.
I've also become increasingly more interested in historical documentaries, although these have always been a bit of a passion of mine (or at least a pleasure). Learning about the past by way of motion pictures is a truly amazing opportunity we've been given, and absolutely fascinating. I sometimes will just pick a subject from history - say, the black plague- and just watch hour-long documentary after documentary on Youtube or Netflix, or Amazon Prime. This is a pretty good life.