Leading on the backstretch

Laura Hillenbrand and Seabiscuit come home winners

If you haven't yet heard of Laura Hillenbrand, you will. Her recently published book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Random House, 2001; see "Books" in this issue) swiftly rose to the number-one spot on the New York Times bestseller list within three weeks of appearing in stores. National media from the Washington Post to NBC News with Tom Brokaw to National Public Radio, in addition to lavishing praise on her book, have focused attention on Hillenbrand herself. For not only has she written the engrossing and dramatic tale of America's most famous racehorse set against the background of the American Depression, but she has done so while battling pain and illness.

Hillenbrand, who matriculated with the Class of 1989, left Kenyon after two years due to the sudden onset of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Over the last fourteen years, the incurable disease has expressed itself not only in debilitating exhaustion, at times bordering on near paralysis, but also as crippling vertigo. The book, which took four years' labor to complete, represents the astonishing feat of a determined intelligence refusing to be beaten by circumstance and random bad luck.

In the late 1930s, the racehorse Seabiscuit was more famous than any movie star in America. In 1938, the thoroughbred dominated more inches of newsprint than either Franklin Roosevelt or Adolph Hitler. In that year, the small, crooked-legged, funny-looking horse with the spirit of a champion stole the hearts of Americans by defeating Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The story of Seabiscuit scaling such glorious heights, after his misunderstood and undistinguished youth, is inextricably linked with the stories of the three men-owner, trainer, and jockey-who championed him. Hillenbrand makes clear that, like Seabiscuit, each of these men lived an archetypically American life, rising from obscurity against all odds to achieve a kind of greatness.

There are writers for whom indelible childhood impressions remain the source and wellspring of subject matter and imagery throughout their writing lives. For Hillenbrand, a thirty-three-year-old native of Fairfax, Virginia, the seminal place was her father's family farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland, abutting Antietam National Battlefield, where she spent childhood weekends and summers. There she acquired her passion for horses and for horseracing, as well as her sense of the American past as something alive in the American present. Equally, she developed an empathetic regard for creatures great and small, whole and damaged, winners and losers-and especially for those who straddle these opposed categories. On the farm she learned that given loving attention and skillful guidance, a latent winner can overcome a troubled or obscure past.

Hillenbrand's father had an open agreement with everyone who lived in the surrounding counties to leave at his farm any horses they didn't want. "The humane society left some poor walking skeletons that had been abused," she recalls. "We got a Chincoteague pony that was foundered, and a very elderly Shetland pony-all kinds of horses, really a motley crew." Hillenbrand and her sister, Susan Hillenbrand Avallon '85, rode them, loved them, and cared for them all.

Schooled in their father's humane ethos, the two sisters rescued a horse bound for slaughter when Hillenbrand was twelve. While at a summer camp, they learned of an emaciated three-year-old filly whose owner, unwilling to pay a veterinarian to treat the horse's urinary infection, planned to sell her to a slaughter dealer for five hundred dollars. "Susan and I dreamed up a little scheme," recalls Hillenbrand. "We covered the horse in mud to make her look really bad. Then we had all the grooms and everyone just attach themselves to the extremities of the owner and beg him to sell the horse to us instead of the slaughter dealer. We scraped up four hundred dollars and told him we'd pay him five hundred." Susan gave all the money she had saved from babysitting and working as a camp counselor, while Laura sold some musical instruments she owned. "We sold everything we had and drained our babysitting accounts to buy this horse," she says, "and it was very much worth it."

They named her Allspice, brought her home to the farm, gave her antibiotics, trained the horse themselves, "and amazingly she blossomed into an extraordinarily beautiful creature who bonded with us the way dogs sometimes bond to their owners." Allspice would follow their car down the driveway, and, having learned to open doors with her lips, would come into the dining room during dinner to greet the family. "We lost her a couple of years later to a terrible illness called Potomac fever, but she was the most wonderful animal I've ever had in my life," Hillenbrand says.

The experience of draining her bank account-giving all she had-to see Allspice blossom parallels Hillenbrand's expenditure of curtailed physical reserves to produce Seabiscuit. The CFS that forced her to leave Kenyon in 1987 has impaired Hillenbrand's physical life to a degree she finds difficult to convey. "I can walk no more than two blocks right now," she says. "I haven't actually left the house in about three weeks. Everything I do exhausts me, and I wake up every morning knowing that I'm going to take a lot of punishment that day, that I'm going to suffer a lot that day, and that's just what life is with this [disease]. The vertigo's very bad, I can barely read and write now, and that's part of having exhausted myself to finish this book. But it was worth it, I think."

As in childhood, Hillenbrand has given everything for a horse, and, as in childhood, she deems the experience well worth the price. Still, "it's very difficult to make people understand how far from normal my physical life is," she says. The items in her office are arranged so that necessities can be reached with the least possible movement. Some days she cannot walk down the staircase. For two full years, the vertigo intensified to the point that she could not leave her bed. She lay watching the clock tick off each five-minute block of time. Her only pleasure was afforded by the Library of Congress's recorded books program. She listened to all of historian Bruce Catton's works on the Civil War and any other material she could find on that period.

"I feel like I am exactly the right person to tell this story," Hillenbrand says, although she admits the labor of finishing the book has left her physically weaker. "What my life has been like has helped me to understand these people and this story perhaps better than someone else might have. As soon as I began researching these people, I was positive that I wanted to get up every morning and have breakfast with them and live my life with them for a few years to come to understand them. I feel like they're people I could meet today and know intimately very quickly just because we have so much in common."

Seabiscuit gave no signs in his first two years of being the legendary winner he would become. He had run and lost seventeen races. "He was just a terrible racehorse for two years, until [trainer] Tom Smith got hold of him. Smith had a rare gift for understanding horses and knowing how to work with them. Seabiscuit was completely transformed by this man." And Smith, in turn, was completely transformed by this horse.

Hillenbrand enjoys describing the historic moment when Smith and Seabiscuit laid eyes on each other for the first time. The horse had run in a low-level race at Suffolk Downs in 1936. During a post-parade, "Tom Smith happened to be standing on the track rail, looking for a horse. Seabiscuit stopped right in front of him and looked at him with a kind of expression that was completely unsuited to a horse of his low caliber," recounts Hillenbrand. "It was a regal expression. Smith said, `It was like he was asking me, what are you doing here?' It was a haughty look, and Smith liked it. It made him think of the cow ponies he used to ride out on the western ranges, and he wanted that horse. This was a no-name horse with a very bad record, but he saw something in him no one had ever seen."

Without hearing the echo herself, Hillenbrand narrates an uncannily similar experience in her own early life, the origin of her interest in horseracing. When she was five years old, her father took her and her three older siblings to Charlestown, a tiny racecourse in West Virginia, because there was nothing to do in the evenings in Sharpsburg. "I remember this as if it was yesterday. I walked in and there was a post-parade, and a great big roan horse stopped right in front of me and looked over the fence in my direction. His name was Blue Bonnet. It was such an arresting sight. I'd never seen a creature that beautiful. I asked my father if we could bet on him. We went to the betting window, I placed the bet myself, and the horse won. That was it for me. I was hooked on racing."

Like Tom Smith, Hillenbrand was chosen by a horse-the look over the track rail-and, in the act of betting on the horse, exercised a reciprocal claim. They chose each other. And both won.

Similar two-way negotiations take place in the best classrooms. As a freshman at Kenyon, Hillenbrand formed a close relationship that continues to this day with her English professor, Megan Macomber (now a professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University). Macomber recognized the talent that had gone unnoticed by Hillenbrand's earlier teachers. "She was the first person in my life who told me, `You should be writing, this should be what you do with your life.' It really inspired me. I still have the note she wrote telling me to do that." Over the years they have remained close, corresponding and sending each other their writing. Hillenbrand asked Macomber to read this book before it came out, "to make sure I didn't mess up anywhere."

Hillenbrand characterizes Kenyon as "a godsend to me," especially by comparison with her large high school. Looking back on secondary-school days, she sees "herds of bison moving through the hallways to get from one class to another. People didn't take notice of individual students, so whatever talents people had-and whatever problems people were having-were overlooked." Hillenbrand had an intellectual awakening at the College, where she discovered-and distinguished-herself academically. "Kenyon turned me around and started my life in the direction it's gone ever since. I became a straight-A student as soon as I got there, and I'd never been that before and never thought I would be that. I had a feeling of being supported the entire time I was there. Going to Kenyon was the best decision I ever made in my life."

Hillenbrand confesses that the College still recurs in her dreams. "Those were the two best years of my life," she says. "Friends from Kenyon remain the dearest people, even those I'm no longer in contact with." She hopes college friends will get in touch with her through her web site, www.seabiscuitonline.com.

If Hillenbrand's childhood passions took shape on the farm in Sharpsburg, she discovered the ruling passions of her adult life on the Hill in Gambier. Here she became acquainted not only with her gift for writing, and her joy in study and learning, but also with the "very, very long-term boyfriend" with whom she has shared her life, Borden Flanagan '87. Flanagan is an adjunct professor of political philosophy at American University in Washington, D.C., where he and Hillenbrand live. They met at Craig's Deli in Farr Hall. "I was known as a `deli rat,' because I was in there most of the day sucking coffee down," says Hillenbrand, whose Kenyon nickname was "Ralf." "I did all my studying in there, and that's where I met him."

They both planned academic careers. He was a double major in political science and English, she in English and history. Hillenbrand, then a sophomore who hoped to become a professor of history, was set to study at the University of Edinburgh during her junior year. "We were total academic nerds," says Hillenbrand. "We met and moved into the library together."

Then came the catastrophe that put an end to all kinds of plans. On the way back to campus with Flanagan at the end of spring break, Hillenbrand ate some bad chicken at a hotel buffet, resulting in food poisoning so severe that her friends at the College called paramedics.

She never recovered from that illness. Growing progressively weaker over the following two weeks, she woke up one day lacking strength to sit up. Unable to go to classes, Hillenbrand had no choice but to leave Kenyon. Several years and many medical tests later, a doctor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine finally pinned down a diagnosis: chronic fatigue syndrome. Hillenbrand says the disease is hopelessly misnamed. "This is to fatigue as an atomic bomb is to a BB gun," she says ruefully.

In 1995, longing to do something productive, Hillenbrand began writing freelance articles. She wrote primarily about horses and published in periodicals devoted to horseracing, concealing her illness from her editors, contacts, and sources. Before long, she became a contributing editor and writer at Equus. In July of 1998, Hillenbrand published an article on Seabiscuit in American Heritage magazine, which won that year's prestigious Eclipse Award-the highest prize for equestrian journalism.

With the help of an agent, Hillenbrand parlayed the article into a book proposal that set first the publishing world, and then Hollywood, on its ear. A bidding war ensued among major publishing houses. Although Random House was not the highest bidder, Hillenbrand accepted its offer based on the rapport she felt with its vice president-her editor-Jonathan Karp.

No sooner had Hillenbrand chosen her publisher than telephone calls started pouring in from film producers. Hollywood scouts working in New York City publishing houses had faxed her book proposal to Los Angeles, as she later found out, where producers had been up all night putting deals together and calculating their bids. Hillenbrand characterizes the enthralling rush of that week as "surreal." After interviewing with each producer and a couple of directors, she chose Universal-again, not the highest-paying offer, but the group of people she thinks most committed to the project. Hillenbrand admires the director, Gary Ross (writer of Big and Dave, and writer-director of Pleasantville). Because he is himself a racing fan, she trusts him to avoid gaffes ("at least I know he won't cast a palomino as Seabiscuit"). She is a consultant on the film, reading drafts and advising on the screenplay.

The success of Seabiscuit makes a material difference in the life of a freelance writer who previously earned no more than nine thousand dollars per year. Grateful as she is for the book's reception, Hillenbrand is deeply cognizant of other rewards, the ones that motivated her to keep working despite her illness during the four years she labored to complete the book: "Illnesses like this consume more than just your body; they become your identity. I had not been sick long before I felt I had lost myself in it, so that all I was to myself, and to everyone else, was a sick person. Writing gives me a means by which to redefine myself. It enables me to accomplish something that has nothing whatsoever to do with sickness, so it gives me a sense of dignity. I can be Laura the writer instead of Laura the invalid. Every word I write is a little victory against CFS.

"Writing is also my greatest escape. The only time I approach being unaware of physical suffering is when I am absorbed in my writing. I have chosen to write about these people and this horse in part because of the vigor of their lives.

"Finally, one of the things I have lost to CFS is a legacy. Barring a miracle, I will not have children because of this disease, and I will always have extremely limited contact with the world. I came to look at this book as my only way of communicating with the world and the one thing I would leave behind. It took on tremendous importance to me, and this made what I went through to write it bearable."

The onset of her illness effectively divided Hillenbrand's life into two chapters: before and after. Hillenbrand "before" was a vigorously active person who rode, swam, bounded to classes. Life "after" has been characterized by minimal physical activity. Her exertions for the last fourteen years, as her body has betrayed so many of her aspirations, have been strictly those of the mind and the will. Hillenbrand, one might say, experiences her life as a personal civil war, in which the body refuses the dictates of the will-an Antietam from which neither side is in retreat.

Exhausted as Seabiscuit has left her, Hillenbrand looks forward to her next project. This one, too, has roots on the family farm. As children, Hillenbrand and her siblings played on the Antietam cannons, periodically discovering bullets, military belt buckles, and other artifacts dropped by the retreating Southern army. Her father's farmhouse was used as a hospital during the historic battle. The Civil War period has held a fascination for her, and it was to that dramatic era in American history that she turned during the two years she was bedridden.

All preparation, it may seem in retrospect. Hillenbrand has gained access to the private memoir of a Northerner who chanced to be in the South at the start of the Civil War and thus experienced the war from both sides. Again, Hillenbrand seizes upon a story that her particular life equips her to interpret particularly well.

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