Top critical review
Breathless and dubious
on February 2, 2004
Where to begin? About ten pages in, I began to smell a rat. This work claims to be nonfiction, but I'm not so sure.
The style of reporting at the time was to overhype. Everyone knows this, but instead of a turning a jaundiced eye, Ms. Hillebrand decided to adopt this practice as her own. There seems to be no tidbit about Seabiscuit reported at the time that she is prepared to disbelieve. Look at how many things in the bibliography are marked "SB" -- which, she explains, is the designation she uses for newspaper clippings which have no date or source attribution. If she could corraborate these through another source, then why not list the other source? She crows, in the Acknowledgements, about finding many cases where the facts she was researching were confirmed by multiple witnesses. Someone please tell the author this is called "corraborating evidence", and it is what you rely on when writing a historical account. Not faded overhyped singleton news clippings of unknown origin, which are quoted from oh so often without the slightest bit of skepticism. (For fun, swing on over to snopes dot com and do a search for "Seabiscuit".)
There are so many little details -- facial expressions, sighs, crowd reactions -- that are "just so", obviously written to thrill rather than inform, and it's quite impossible to believe that any historical research method short of a time machine could possibly reveal them. And these tidbits are always presented in such a way as to make Seabiscuit's rise more dramatic, trainer Smith more mysterious, jockey Pollard more unlikely.
The popularity of this book and its accompanying movie have effectively clouded the waters, so we'll probably never know the true story of Seabiscuit. Ms. Hillenbrand has launched an effective campaign towards his establishment as a fairy tale, however.