How Race and Horse Racing are Interconnected: An Interview with Geraldine Brooks

What rich history might be embedded in things we discard? Are we destined to make the mistakes that our ancestors made? What will it take to build a more just society? These are just some of the questions posed by Horse, the latest book by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks.

Drawn from history but made alive through fiction, Horse starts with the discovery of a discarded painting in Washington DC circa 2019 and takes the reader to the modern art world in 1954 New York City and to 1850s Kentucky to tell the story of Lexington, a record-breaking thoroughbred and greatest stud sire in American history.

Expertly woven and full of fascinating detail, the story of an enslaved groom named Jarrett and his horse Lexington is shown alongside the modern day stories of Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian.

Jess and Theo connect through their shared interest in the horse — Jess studying the stallion’s bones for clues to his prowess, Theo uncovering the lost history of the overlooked Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success. We also see Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on modern painters like Jackson Pollock, who becomes fascinated with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of unknown background. Horse is a story of mystery, passion, skill, and oppression. 

I recently sat down with Brooks in the lobby of the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky to discuss Horse.

In your afterword you discuss how this book was born out of a curiosity about the skeleton of the famed horse Lexington, which was on loan to the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky. What was it about this artifact that stoked your curiosity and were you surprised by what you found out?

So surprised. It was the artifact, but I learned of the artifact at the same time that I learned whose skeleton it was and what an outstanding horse he was. And I thought, you know, this is a wonderful story, and I’m sure everybody but me knows it. And then when I found out that it wasn’t that well known outside of Kentucky, well that’s catnip for a novelist. But this skeleton itself, the fact that it had been celebrated, exhibited, and then disregarded for so many years and literally stuffed in the attic. Then, when they’re-evaluated it prior to moving, it had the story of Lexington’s blindness written in the bone. I’m a bit of a science nerd, and I love looking at how scientists work. So that part of the story fascinated me. The idea of being able to tell a horse story that has, for the horse, a happy ending. The great Australian racehorse Phar Lap had such a tragic life and terrible ending and, you know, I could barely sit through the movie, much less want to live with the story. For me it was very attractive that this horse was very well cared for and beloved and celebrated to the end of his life.

At what point were you aware of the relationship between the horse and groom, and how much of that was fictional?

It was a real surprise to me that this entwined so much with the story of the Black horsemen, and how incredibly skilled these men were, and what a strange niche within the institution of slavery they came to occupy, because their expertise was so fundamental to the thing that the white owners cared most about, which was the prestige that they got from their thoroughbreds. How the owners defer to these men and their expertise and how it allowed these men to carve out a somewhat better destiny with somewhat more agency than other enslaved people, within the limits of a brutal system. And it comes very quickly apparent in the story of Lexington that Harry Lewis had no ultimate say, in this horse that he trained and had that mysteriously described interest in. And I wish there was more information, but luckily, I got a lot of help from  Bill Cooke, at the International Museum of the Horse, who had been researching the Black horsemen. He very kindly opened his notebooks to me and showed me all of the trails that he was following, but there’s so much more to know and I’m sure historians will uncover more of the story.

You talked about coming to understand as you researched Lexington’s life that “this novel could not merely be about a racehorse; it also needed to be about race.” Why is horse racing and its history a particularly good lens through which to explore questions of racism?

Well because I think it’s an uncommon story. People in this country think of enslaved people, they think of plantations, they think of field workers, maybe they think of house servants. But perhaps not so often as skilled professionals, and horse racing wasn’t the only place where this was true. But it was certainly an outstanding example of a place where men of great professional savvy and expertise as trainers and jockeys and grooms were able to rise within that craft, within the system, and all the complications that ensue from that. I like to find contradictory and confusing information and there is so much of it.

I want to ask about the research, because there are so many details about farm life, about racing, modern day stuff about science and art authentication. It’s such a challenge as a writer to decide what to include, and how to keep it from being too pedantic. With this book in particular, talk about what you choose to put in and what you set aside with the thought that it was going to be too weighty or too explained.

I do it the same way every time, which is I let the story drive the research. So I start writing the story until I get to a point where I need to know something. Like, you know, obvious example: How do you train a horse? It’s easy to find how they do it now, but to go back and find out how they did it to create these incredible four mile horses, who could last that distance, as well as turn on blistering speed. So that was fascinating. And, luckily, it was such an incredible passion of the era that there is so much documentation on the horses. So that was the easy part. Keeneland library was very helpful. They hauled out all the old newspapers, and I could read the absolutely ‘day of’ race reports. Because this horse was so beloved and such a focus of attention, there was so much written about him and about his character and his training. So that part I didn’t really have to chase after as much as the other things.

What was it like to learn about the artwork and the science, the science of reconstructing bones?

I loved it. The Smithsonian was super helpful to me. They let me have access to the museum support center out in Maryland, which is a world of wonders out there. They have everything that’s not on display, and they do all the science that supports research. So it’s streets, literally streets of labs, and storage areas. You’re there, you’re watching some bit of work being done, and literally a triceratops skull is going by on a gurney this way and an old masters painting is going the other way. It’s just fantastic.

In your research, what was the thing that surprised you the most of all the things you discovered?

I think the connection between the horse and Jackson Pollock. That, you really couldn’t make up.

How did you stumble upon that?

When I went to the Smithsonian to begin the research, I saw the painting of Lexington that they have there. It’s not on display. It’s in a study area. And then finding out the provenance of the painting, that it belonged to Martha Jackson, and then who she was. So that took me spinning out into the abstract expressionist movement and the movements of the post-World War Two period when we were developing an entirely new, different painting aesthetic. I loved it. I was an art history major. So it was great to suddenly find that I could use some of that.

A passage in the book from the character Scott echoes modern politics: “They were, all of them, lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true. Their mad conception of Mr. Lincoln as some kind of cloven-hooved Devil’s scion, their complete disregard—denial—of the humanity of the enslaved, their fabulous notions of what evil the Federal government intended for them should cause their fail—all of it was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” Talk to me about the discovery of these parallels and the response you hope it might evoke in the reader.

I would never presume to hope anything other than somebody bothered to read it. That is the extent of my hubris as an author. My husband Tony Horwitz was doing a nonfiction book at the same time, and we researched together in Kentucky, because there were some crossing points of people that were connected to the horse that were also connected to Frederick Law Olmsted. So he was doing a book on Frederick Law Olmsted, who was doing dispatches for the New York Times on why is our country so divided, right before the Civil War. Yes, the parallels. As Tony was working on his book, just before Trump was elected, the country was splitting apart, and it’s only gotten way worse since then. And you know, it was the jackhammer outside my window the whole time I was writing this book because I started it just as Trump was inaugurated. And all the incredible tension, bitterness and division that happened in the four years that I was working on it. It is very closely parallel to the way we came apart during the Civil War.

I was wondering about the character of Jarrett, the enslaved black groom. You make a choice to have him develop a really deep sense of empathy in the face of cruelty. I want to talk about writers and empathy. We need it to develop characters that are fully drawn, even people who are doing bad things. So I’m curious about your experience in the role of empathy in helping you create the difficult characters in this book.

I think it’s helpful to try and imagine how they see themselves. Because I don’t think anybody gets up in the morning and thinks, “I’m a shithead.”  They get up in the morning telling themselves a story about who they are, and why they do what they do, and why that’s justifiable. And so you try and access that somehow.

Our conversation came to a close, and I thanked Brooks for offering a look at the creation of this layered novel. Sitting in that historic hotel lobby, unpacking the history of Horse with Brooks, left me feeling transported to a different, but equally complex time, whose questions echo in modern events.

By Geraldine Brooks
Published June 14, 2022