“The Horse” is the story of an enslaved man who grooms a purebred: NPR

Lexington was a winning thoroughbred in the mid-1800’s, and the basis for Geraldine Brooks’ new novel “The Horse.” Scott Simon talks to her about her story.

Scott Simon, Host:
Lexington was one of the most exceptional athletes of the nineteenth century. It happens to be a racehorse. The story of his career is the skeleton, if you please, as Geraldine Brooks pinned her latest novel. It is a human story that takes us from the time of Jarrett Lewis, an enslaved young man who becomes his bridegroom, to the racetracks of old New Orleans and modern scientists in Washington, D.C., who have resurrected Lexington with a photograph and his heroine—abandoned bones, discovered in the Smithsonian’s attic. Geraldine Brooks’ new novel is called “The Horse.” We are now joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist “The March” and other bestsellers from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Thank you very much for being with us.
Geraldine Brooks: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Scott.
Simon: Tell us about Lexington in its prime.
Brooks: It was the most outstanding horse. He had incredible strength, endurance and incredible speed. He also had a fine temper and great courage.
Simon: Help us understand the unusual relationship between Jarrett Lewis and Lexington – because Jarrett had a different view than the former on horse training, right?
Brooks: Well, that’s right. So the character of Jarrett was suggested by referring to him describing a missing painting. He describes Lexington being led by, quoting, “Great lions, his bridegroom.” It was late in the life of the stallion. And I tried to find out who this groom was, but I could not find anything about him in the registry. But it did lead me to get to know all of the outstanding black jockeys who were responsible for this racehorse’s success. Thus I imagined Greet to have a relationship with the horse from its birth until the end of its life. I based this on my own relationship with horses and the amazing understanding you can have if you can bridge the gap between species and win their trust and affection.
Simon: There is a point in the story when the owner–and I want to be careful about the use of language–I mean the horse-owner and the slave-owner are suggesting that Jarrett might have a choice between freedom and Lexington, right?
Brooks: Well, there’s a lot of tension in the book because, for most of the book, Gary is not in control of his own destiny. Thus at any moment, he could be removed from his family. He can be removed from the horse he loves and raised. It can even be taken away from the skill set from which it derives what little efficacy it has within this brutal system. So you are always on guard for him.
Simon: Yes. There are two contemporary characters, Theo and Jess. Theo is an art historian from a Nigerian American family and Jess is a scientist from Australia. What do they insinuate when they find out about Lexington?
Brooks: They were both drawn to the story because they were both people who wanted to add their grains to the sand of human knowledge. A lot of questions for Jess. She’s a bone preparer at the Smithsonian Institution, so she handles preparing bones for scientists to study their DNA, measure them, and do comparative work on species. And Theo is fascinated by the lost stories of the black knights depicted in the equestrian art of the period.
Simeon: What is the image or luster of information that told you, this is a novel?
Brooks: It started with the horse’s story which was very interesting, the twists and turns of a horse racing career. There is great drama in that. Then what happened to the horse during the Civil War – and I was a goner. Once I learned that part of the story, I knew it was mine. What I didn’t realize until I started studying the history of the horse and was responsible for its success is that I couldn’t just write about the racehorse. I also had to write about race. I could not leave this story in the past either. He had to come to the present because he wasn’t done yet.
Simon: Yes. And what is research like compared to writing?
Brooks: I love both. I guess I’m lucky that way (laughter). I think the former newspaper reporter in me absolutely adores the chance to rise in other people’s business, to rise…
Simon: Yes. well said. yes. Geraldine, forgive me for asking – I think some people are going to ask, How are you?
Brooks: You know, it was very hard losing the love of my life, Tony Horowitz, and he was a huge fan of the subject because he loves that period of American history so much. Then he suddenly left. And I know you know about this because I think you lost your father when you were in your mid-teens, just like…
Simon: Yes.
Brooks: …my boys did. My boys did. And so, you know, it was hard for us to find our way as a family. But what we’re doing, our practice, I guess you could call it, just becomes radically grateful for the great 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 guy, and he made every day like a party.
Simon: Great. Well, those laughs will continue. They will warm you. It was my experience.
Brooks: I hope so.
Simon: Geraldine Brooks – her new “Horse” novel. Thank you very much for being with us.
Brooks: Thank you, Scott.

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