I finished reading Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand today, and I must say it’s been a good read. I really like nonfiction that tells a story, is rich in detail but doesn’t get bogged down in meaningless facts and figures. Seabiscuit, as everybody already knows because of the movie, is the story of a race horse. Most of the action takes place just before World War 2, 1936-1940. The book is about the horse, his owner, Charles Howard, his trainer, Tom Smith, and his two jockeys, George Woolf and Red Pollard. They’re a colorful lot. Seabiscuit himself is almost deformed in the knees, a horse that loves to eat and sleep–and run. One of his jockeys is blind in one eye; the other has chronic diabetes. Smith the trainer is eccentric, to say the least, and Seabiscuit’s owner is a self-made millionaire from San Francisco who started out as a bicycle repairman. All of these characters come together to create an unforgetable episode in American history. I’ve never been interested in horseracing, but I am interested in people and in history. I thought Hillenbrand captured the personalities of the people in her book (and even of the horses) and made me want to know what happened to them. What decisions did they make? How did each of their life’s “races” turn out?
Pollard, for example, was a Canadian, “an elegant young man, tautly muscled, with a shock of supernaturally orange hair. . . he lived entirely on the road of the racing circuit, sleeping in empty stalls, carrying with him only a saddle, his rosary, and his books: pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, a little copy of Robert Service’s Songs of the Sourdough, maybe some Emerson, whom he called ‘Old Waldo.’ The books were the closest things he had to furniture, and he lived in them the way other men live in easy chairs.” Don’t you already want to know what will happen to a man like that when he meets up with Seabiscuit, a championship horse with so many quirks that only Pollard, and his friend Woolf, understand him well enough to ride him to victory?
Seabiscuit showed me a whole subculture that I knew nothing about, the horse racing world. And it was a fascinating world.
Some other worlds you may want to visit:
One Child by Torey Hayden–The world of mentally disturbed children and their teacher.
Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder–The world of computer geeks and computer wizards.
Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone–The world of the Wild West; a readable history of Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and California.
Small Victories by Samuel Freedman–The scary world of public high school in New York City.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken–The world of a very special marriage.
The Conquering Family by Thomas B. Costain (and its sequels, The Three Edwards, The Magnificent Century, and The Last Plantagenets)–The world of medieval England and its royal family.
So there you have it, some of my very favorite nonfiction worlds.