The Narrative Nonfiction Book, Part III

by Richard Goodman

Lessons from Seabiscuit, Part III

At this point, Hillenbrand has enough material to write her book. Mind you, she’ll keep unearthing things still, but it’s time to begin the actual writing. So, how does she construct this book? Well, already certain that this is to be a story about character and characters; she begins her book by introducing the four protagonists.
In order, she devotes her first four chapters to Charles Howard, the future owner of Seabiscuit, to Tom Smith, the trainer, to Seabiscuit himself, and, finally, to Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s jockey. This is in fact how these protagonists came into the story. Howard found Smith who found Seabiscuit who found Pollard. (Interestingly, Hillenbrand introduces them in the reverse order in her “Preface.”) She devotes a chapter to Seabiscuit, because, as we see, the horse is himself a real character—and has character—too.  Right away, Hillenbrand lets us most assuredly know that this is not going to be a history lesson, not going to be a book just about horses, but it’s going to be a book about people. The story is mirrored by the construction of the book itself.
This structure also allows the author to demonstrate how different these men are, and how different their backgrounds. We can see this in stark comparison, and it is, quite simply, a lot of fun. These men are from an era in which you might have the most colorful, ragtag, astonishing background.
There is not enough space here in this brief essay to go into the confluence of history, much less geographical influences, represented in these lives, but Hillenbrand takes full advantage of what she herself had seen at one point: Charles Howard represented progress in the form of the automobile, and what contraption has changed the face of America more? Tom Smith represented the glory and independence of the fading Wild West, a land where the horse was king. He was already breaking horses at the age of thirteen on the plains in the latter part of the 19th century. The Indians called him the “Lone Plainsman.” Voluble as Gary Cooper, with an amazing knowledge of the ways and means of horses, he was a living anachronism, and a brilliant one. Red Pollard led a Steinbeckian life. Plagued by injury but possessed of an indomitable spirit and an unsinkable good will, he made this story even more unlikely.
Hillenbrand masterfully introduces other elements into the story—the friendship and rivalry between Red Pollard and the better-known jockey George Woolf, for example.  But from here on in, she dedicates herself to telling the story itself. Which means that, along with the actual facts, she must give us an education about horseracing as she goes along. She must assume that many of her readers know nothing of thoroughbred racing.  And she has to make sure we aren’t bored by this education.
She is concerned with that, and she is concerned with pace, with providing drama, and with establishing tension in a situation in which the events have already taken place. In this case, our ignorance works to her advantage. The fact that many of us probably knew very little about this story means that she can surprise us. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea that Seabiscuit and War Admiral ran this great race, and so, obviously, I had no idea who won. In the end, I was glad about my ignorance. Not knowing made her descriptions of the races even more thrilling.
The writing in Seabiscuit is marked by precision, lyricism, wit, and exuberance. For pure compacted energy and outright irresistibility, first turn to Hillenbrand’s “Preface.” It has that most essential virtue any preface should possess in my opinion: brevity. It’s an educated tease that supplies us with enough energized information to get us primed for the race that follows. Right away, we are assured that Hillenbrand wants to tell a story, not to lecture us, and that she herself can’t wait to tell it.
As for Hillenbrand’s wit, consider this sentence about Red Pollard, the injury-prone jockey who was laid up in the hospital:

Alexander found Pollard lying supine with his leg up in traction, his misery greatly assuaged by a leggy private nurse named Agnes. 

Or, recounting the story of a jockey that had been thrown off his horse so badly he was presumed near death. The jockey, named Neves, was taken away to the hospital, only to revive.  Hillenbrand writes:

Neves woke up. 

He asked the physician if he had won the fifth race. The stunned doctor told him the fifth race hadn’t even been run yet. Neves promptly stood up and announced that he had to get back to riding. The jockey broke free from hands that tried to restrain him, jumped into a cab and went back to the racetrack.

Hillenbrand recounts that: 

As the shirtless, blood-splattered erstwhile corpse sprinted past the grandstand, astonished fans started running after him.

I love that, “the erstwhile corpse”!
Hillenbrand is a generous writer. By that, I mean that her attitude is one of: I’ve got this great story to tell you, so everyone gather round. Everyone. There is never a sense of superciliousness in her writing—that is, of her looking down from her knowledgeable position. Every wonderful fact, quote and incident she brings to the story is with the attitude of a cook whose greatest pleasure is to see the reaction of people enjoying her food.
I can speak about lyricism and exuberance in terms of one of the most difficult tasks Hillenbrand faced in writing this book. That is, the descriptions of the horse races themselves. In the book, there are four main races she describes. Two of them Seabiscuit lost. Now, the question you should ask yourself is: how can anyone make a description of a horserace that took place fifty years ago interesting, much less four? Think of it.  Suppose your book was about sailing. And why not?  Could you describe four sailing races and keep readers glued to their seats? 
Here’s how Hillenbrand did it. First, she made us care. The first big race doesn’t come until page 120 in the book, and by then we have learned a great deal about the protagonists in this tale and have become quite attached to them. Everything is against Seabiscuit, his trainer and his jockey, and yet they all had an “indomitable will,” as Hillenbrand describes Seabiscuit.
Something else. I don’t know if this has been mentioned much in reviews and criticism, but each of these men is very loyal to what they believe in and to the people who are important to them. In other words, they are good men. Strong men, in that sense, who would not, did not, sacrifice friendship for fame or fortune. Believe me, there were plenty of temptations, particularly in this era when times were so hard. It’s fulfilling to be around people like this, even on the printed page. We want good things for them. Not only that, but by then we have come to see that Seabiscuit himself has character, has a fierce pride he was ready all along to display, if only the right people came along who understood him.
Ok. So we care. It’s still a horserace, though. The horses race around a track, someone wins, and the rest of them lose. That’s it. Not in Hillenbrand’s hands. Now, you have to remember, these races don’t come one upon another. A lot happens between races. There is time to recover and time to build tension up again. I’m just talking about pure description here. These actual races don’t take long. No longer than about two minutes in real time! Hillenbrand put in months of research to see that those two minutes were described not only as accurately as possible, but as dramatically. She had the facts when she was ready to write. Then she added art.
For example, in the race against War Admiral, Hillenbrand employs language that is not normally associated with horses, but with cats. She writes: “Seabiscuit clawed at the ground in front of him.” And: “War Admiral scratched and tore at the track.”  And: “Seabiscuit pounced.” 
In describing another race, she also uses words that we often hear employed in car racing: “Richards saw him go and gunned Rosemont through the hole,” she writes. “Wall wound Stagehand up to top speed,” she writes elsewhere. And: “Whichee screamed along the rail.”
And just for pure pleasure, here are some other examples of admirable writing: 

Ahead of him, Pollard crouched and watched Special Agent’s churning hindquarters, waiting for him to fold.


Seabiscuit stalked him with predatory lunges. 


As the wire neared, the horses’ heads bobbed out of time, so that the lead was traded every few feet. 

Finally, a paragraph from the duel between Seabiscuit and War Admiral:

The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, a fifteen-year-old speed record fell under them, broken by nearly a full second. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind. 

Hillenbrand knows precisely when she can employ a bit of melodrama. Sentences like, “As forty thousand voices shouted them on,” and “tens of thousands of roaring spectators and millions of radio listeners painting this race in their imaginations” are appropriate here for this most collectively emotion-packed moment.
The last lesson here is, yes, do your research, then write the hell out of it with all the art you can muster. 
In the end, though, I believe the greatest lesson is one of belief. Let’s go back to the sailing example. You may be tempted to say, oh, well, sailing, I don’t think I could write so dramatically about that. Who cares about sailing? Really, sailing is not nearly as exciting as horseracing; it’s so slow. My response?  So you say. 
The main reason why Hillenbrand can write so grippingly about horse races that took place fifty years ago is because she believes. She believes in her story, in her drama, in her characters, in what she calls their “crowded hour.” With that belief, for which she employs every ounce of energy and learning and determination she has, she carries the day, and with it, we, her grateful readers.

Read Part I and Part II.