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Racehorse Tale Is Longshot Winner

Horse came from behind to become an American icon.

July 01, 2001|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At first glance, an audio book about a horse that died more than 50 years ago does not seem a compelling subject. But that would be a case of wrongly judging a book by its cover. "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," by Laura Hillenbrand, is an addictive true tale that unwinds much like a novel. (Random House Audiobooks, abridged nonfiction, four cassettes, six hours, $25.95, read by Campbell Scott.)

The story captivates our imaginations as Hillenbrand details the life of an unattractive, nasty-tempered little racehorse that went from an underdog to a champion and cultural icon. This account clip-clops along at a fast pace and Hillenbrand's descriptive (though sometimes overwrought) prose is rife with eccentric characters, exciting races and immense tragedy.

At the heart of the story is the personal drama of the men who stubbornly rehabilitated a surly and unlikely looking racehorse. In many ways, this is the archetypal American rags-to-riches tale, though some of the players ended their lives in the same financial straits as when we first met them.

The determined trio who brought Seabiscuit forth from obscurity included Red Pollard, a down-on-his-heels, half-blind prizefighter and failed jockey with a knack for riding unruly horses. Trainer Tom Smith was an uncommunicative mustang breaker whose unusual methods and reclusive ways intrigued the media and worked miracles on the horse. Owner Charles Howard was a former bicycle repairman who made his money selling cars to the American West after declaring that "the day of the horse is past."

Hillenbrand combines the biographies of these men with a thrilling description of horse racing that vividly recounts the wild adulation Seabiscuit stirred up in the American public. Much of the story takes place between 1936 and 1947, a time when the Depression was ending and WWII was raging. The author provides a glimpse of American life often overlooked by historians that is unexpectedly engaging.

Though the abridgment is very well done, only about half of the original material made it onto audio. Missing are some of Hillenbrand's detailed accounts of the major and minor players, her acknowledgments and the photos of "The Biscuit" and his keepers. However, one gains narrator Campbell Scott and his attractive, deep voice. He captures the spirit of the three characters who trained, rode and owned the horse.

Campbell is a well-seasoned audio book narrator whose polish and experience are clearly heard. The actor's pace and diction are perfect and his somewhat reserved style quite suits this production. Also, the producer imaginatively enhanced the ending by using music to underscore the details of Seabiscuit's death that evokes the music heard at horse tracks.

Another delightful surprise is "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less," by Terry Ryan. (Simon & Schuster Audio; abridged nonfiction; three cassettes; 4 hours, 30 minutes; $25; read by the author. Also available on four CDs, $30.)

Ryan, the writing half of T.O. Sylvester, a long-running cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle, writes lovingly, but not sentimentally, of her enterprising mother and alcoholic father.

Evelyn Ryan, high school valedictorian and onetime journalist, found herself in the 1950s with 10 children and an alcoholic husband. She relied on her wits and her sense of humor to help feed and clothe her family. Like many other housewives, she turned to contests as a means of supplementing her husband's meager income and providing the family with much-needed household appliances.

The author chronicles not only her family history, but also the contest crazes of the 1950s and 1960s. If one were clever, as was Evelyn Ryan, one could win small and large amounts of money, watches, cars, televisions, trips to Europe and even an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show." Particularly engaging are the descriptions of the mother's almost miraculous timing. When the family car shuddered to a halt or the toaster broke down, she won another.

Terry Ryan, who inherited her mother's knack for a clever turn of phrase, captures her mother's optimism and brio. She also writes unflinchingly of the grinding poverty and alcoholism that were as much a part of their lives as her mother's endless determination.

Though the abridgment was well done, the listener misses some of the details of family life that make the story even more touching. But the loss is not great, as much of the original material is included.

The narrative moves along quickly, and Ryan is an impressive narrator, considering she is not a professional actor. This offbeat biography needed a real person and not a slick actress, which is what it got with the author.

Ryan's voice is average, but her intelligence and energy are easily heard. Her timing is great and there is a no-nonsense manner to her delivery that suits the story. You can hear the admiration she feels for her mother throughout the audio book, which only enhances our enjoyment.

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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