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Laura Hillenbrand's nonfiction account of the famous race horse Seabiscuit would have been seriously deficient had she not placed this noble beast's story within its proper historical context. Seabiscuit: An American Legend does focus diligently on the life of this one particular horse, as well as on the lives of the three men whose relationships to Seabiscuit were instrumental in shaping the story's narrative. It is the author's successful establishment of the historical context in which Seabiscuit's story takes place that provides the answer to the student's question (how does the book contribute to one's understanding of U.S. history?). Seabiscuit's story occurred contemporaneously with the onset of the Great Depression, the most catastrophic economic event in the nation's history. The Great Depression was a time of extreme economic and social insecurity for the bulk of the country's population, and many of those Americans sought solace, if only for a few hours, by immersing themselves in any form of entertainment available. For most, that meant radio and film. The escapism offered by American films, especially musicals, helped millions of people find a temporary reprieve from the bad news that dominated radio broadcasts and newspaper headlines. Horse racing was a more narrowly-focused form of entertainment, but it served the same purpose for many Americans as baseball, films and radio. And, as Hillenbrand notes early in her book, the story of horse racing converged with the broader economic problems confronting the nation in a way that helps to answer the student's question:
"Over the next three years, as the Depression strangled the economy, state governments searched desperately for revenue. Californians hoping to relegalize racing, pounced."
What this means is that Seabiscuit's emergence and reign on horse racing's scene served both to inject much needed revenue into state governments' coffers while providing the much needed entertainment that Americans craved. The story of Seabiscuit is also, then, the story of the nation's history during that turbulent and fearful period.
Another way in which Hillenbrand's book contributes to our understanding of American history is through the narrative's focus on the horse's popularity relative to inarguably more important issues of the day. While the Depression clearly receives the attention it deserves, the rise of fascism in Europe and the coming war -- what would be the greatest conflagration in human history -- took a backseat to the public's fascination with Seabiscuit and his rivalry with War Admiral, the reigning horse of the time. Hillenbrand notes this peculiar but not uncommon development, writing that "the little horse" had received more press coverage in 1938 -- the year of Munich -- than President Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While Seabiscuit's popularity owed much to its underdog status (about which more later) and to the aforementioned public need for something or someone for whom to cheer, the public's priorities as the world inched closer to war would prove prescient.
Finally, Seabiscuit's unusual story is consistent with the traditional American tendency to root for the underdog. With his physical shortcomings and temperamental past, Seabiscuit's transformation into the dominant horse of his time represented the quintessential tale of the less fortunate overcoming adversity that captivates most Americans. Seabiscuit was the unlikeliest of winners, but his successes bred over time an increasingly large following of people who found this peculiar animal's efforts especially poignant.
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