The Novel ‘Horse’ is the Story of a Slave Grooming a Winning Thoroughbred: NPR
Lexington was a winning thoroughbred in the mid-1800s and the basis for Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, “Horse.” Scott Simon talks to him about his story.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Lexington was one of the most extraordinary athletes of the 19th century. He happened to be a racehorse. The story of her career is the skeleton, please, in which Geraldine Brooks hangs her latest novel. It’s a human story that takes us from the days of Jarret Lewis, the young slave who becomes her bridegroom, to the racetracks of old New Orleans and contemporary scholars of Washington, D.C., who resurrect Lexington with a portrait and with his long- abandoned bones, discovered in the attic of the Smithsonian. Geraldine Brooks’ new novel is called “Horse”. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of “March” and other bestsellers now joins us from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Thank you very much for being with us.
GERALDINE BROOKS: It’s such a pleasure to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: Tell us about Lexington in its heyday.
BROOKS: He was the standout horse. He had incredible strength and stamina and lightning speed. He also had a beautiful temperament and great courage.
SIMON: Help us understand the extraordinary relationship between Jarret Lewis and Lexington – because Jarret had a different take on training a horse than the first, didn’t he?
BROOKS: Well, it’s true. Thus, the character of Jarret was suggested to me by a reference to him describing a painting that is missing. And he describes Lexington led by, in quotation marks, “Black Shank, his groom.” And it’s late in the stallion’s life. And I tried to find out who this groom was, but I couldn’t find anything on him in the file. But it led me to learn more about all the amazingly accomplished black riders who were responsible for this racehorse’s success. And so I imagined Jarret having a relationship with the horse from birth to the end of its life. And I based that on my own relationship with horses and the incredible understanding you can have if you can bridge the gap between species and earn their trust and affection.
SIMON: There’s a moment in history where an owner – and I want to be careful with the use of language – I mean a horse owner and a slaver suggests that Jarret might have a choice between freedom and Lexington, is not it ?
BROOKS: Well, there’s a lot of tension in the book because Jarret, for most of the book, isn’t in control of his destiny. And so at any moment he can be torn from his family. He can be snatched from the horse he loves and bred. And he can even be ripped from the skill set he derives from what little agency he has within this brutal system. So you’re still on edge for him.
SIMON: Yeah. There are two contemporary figures, Theo and Jess. Theo is an art historian from a Nigerian-American family and Jess an Australian scientist. What do they see when they discover Lexington?
BROOKS: So they’re both drawn to history because they’re both the kind of people who want to add their grit to the sandbox of human knowledge. And there are so many questions for Jess. She’s an osteopreparator at the Smithsonian, so she takes care of preparing the bones for scientists to study their DNA, measure them, do comparative work on the species. And Theo is intrigued by the lost stories of black riders that are depicted in equestrian art of the time.
SIMON: What was the image or reflection of the information that told you this is a novel?
BROOKS: It started just with the story of a horse that was so intriguing, the twists and turns of the horse’s racing career. There is a great drama in there. And then what happened to the horse in the Civil War – and I was finished. As soon as I learned that part of the story, I knew it was for me. What I didn’t realize until I studied the history of the horse and who was responsible for its success was that I couldn’t just write about a racehorse. I also had to write about race. I could not leave this story in the past either. She had to come to the present because it’s not over.
SIMON: Yeah. And what does research look like compared to writing?
BROOKS: I like both. I think I’m lucky that way (laughs). I think the ex-journalist in me loves the opportunity to get into other people’s business, to stand up…
SIMON: Yeah. Well said. Yeah. Geraldine, forgive me for asking – I think some people are going to ask, how are you?
BROOKS: You know, it was very difficult to lose the love of my life, Tony Horwitz, and he was a big fan of the subject because he loves that period of American history so much. And then he left so suddenly. And I know you know something about that because I think you lost your dad when you were in your mid-teens, just like…
BROOKS: …My boys did. My boys did. And so, you know, it’s been hard for us to find our way as a family. But what we do, our practice, I guess you could call it, just became radically grateful for the good time we had with Tony. And when we talk about him, which we do all the time, almost every story ends with a big laugh because he was the funniest man, and he made every day a party.
SIMON: Wow. Well, those laughs will continue. They will warm you up. This is my experience.
BROOKS: I hope so.
SIMON: Geraldine Brooks – her new novel is ‘Horse’. Thank you very much for being with us.
BROOKS: Thank you, Scott.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, “HIGH HORSE”)
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