As a young girl, bestselling-author Laura Hillenbrand and her older sister, Susan, rode horses over the Washington County hills and along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath. They rode bareback, sliding back and forth and trying to stay astride the horse while only holding onto bridles they’d made from twine.
“We did a lot of riding and a lot of falling off,” Hillenbrand said. When they did fall off, they had to protect their heads since they didn’t wear helmets. It might have been a little dangerous, but it was a lot of fun.
Hillenbrand and her family spent much of the summers of her youth at their farm in Sharpsburg. Her father worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. and the 600-acre farm served as a getaway and refuge from the stress of the city. The stone farm house where they lived had served as a field hospital after the Battle of Antietam.
With not a lot of choices for fun activities to do during the long summer days, Hillenbrand would wander the property following trails through the woods and occasionally finding a relic. “I became completely fascinated by the Civil War,” she said. “We would sometimes find artifacts. We found bullets and even a general’s belt buckle.”
She and her sister would also save up their babysitting money and buy bus tickets to the Charles Town Race Track across the Potomac River from Sharpsburg to watch thoroughbred horse racing.
“I loved the ride over there. I fell in love with racing history and talking to those old people on the Greyhound bus who had been going to the races for years,” Hillenbrand said.
That Western Maryland farm sparked two great passions in Hillenbrand’s adult professional life – history and horse racing. She grew up to become a New York Times bestselling author who makes history accessible and interesting to general audiences.
“A lot of textbooks aren’t well written,” Hillenbrand said. “The people who wrote them didn’t understand that these are stories. You can tell them like you would a novel. You just have to stick to all the facts and do your research.”
The result of Hillenbrand’s research and writing was Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The race horse was the biggest news maker of 1938, which is also the same year he beat out Triple Crown Winner Man O’War to be named the U.S. Horse of the Year. Most of the people who are associated with Seabiscuit are now dead and little seems to have remained about his story except for yellowed newspapers and out-of-print books. Hillenbrand owned one such book. Come On Seabiscuit was a 1963 children’s book that she bought for a quarter at a book fair in Bethesda when she was eight years old.
“I read the cover right off that book and I still have it,” Hillenbrand said.
As with most children’s books, though, it had little in the way of text.
“I knew there was a big untold story there,” she says.
So Hillenbrand set out to tell it. It took her five years to write Seabiscuit, but the hard work paid off. The book has sold 6 million hardcover and paperback copies in print and won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2001. It was also made into an Academy-Award-nominated film in 2003. She said seeing her book made into a movie was “surreal.”
“I never get used to it,” she says. “I’ll remember writing a scene and then to see that on the screen is the weirdest thing.”
Though Hillenbrand was born in Fairfax, Va., she grew up in Montgomery County. She lived across the street from Bethesda Elementary and is a graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
“Everything has changed so much when I go there, I don’t recognize it anymore. It so much more crowded,” she said.
As a pre-teen, Hillenbrand remembers getting into trouble for not doing her homework at Leland Jr. High School because she was more interested in writing her own stories.
“I knew what I did [when I grew up] would involve writing and history. Part of my love of history comes from my Dad’s farm being saturated in history,” she said.
Hillenbrand’s latest book is called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It’s the story of Louis Zamperini who was considered one of the fastest men alive in the late 1930’s and has an inspiring story of the survival after being shot down during WWII and of enduring inhumane treatment as a Japanese prisoner of war.
Hillenbrand discovered his story while poring over newspapers from the 1930s for her research for Seabiscuit.
“I turned over the page of an article I was reading about Seabiscuit and saw this article about a kid who was setting the world on fire,” Hillenbrand says.
It caught her attention and as she learned more about Zamperini, she became fascinated by his story.
“I’d never heard a true story like that,” Hillenbrand says. “I knew I had to write the book to know how a guy can get to the point where [Zamperini] can forgive what he had to forgive.”
Though Hillenbrand and her husband now live in northwest Washington, D.C., she still enjoys Maryland.
“I love Maryland,” Hillenbrand said. “I used to spend my weekends going to the race track and going to the beach. I love how Maryland has mountains and quiet woods on one end and the ocean on the other end.”
This is an article that I wrote that originally ran in 2012 in Maryland Life Magazine.