Brooks uses her incredible research and storytelling skills to shed light on the little-known role of enslaved people in the pre-war thoroughbred industry. It’s a subject that will be new to most readers and forces us to confront a shameful past. The novel aims to stimulate many important conversations and bring a forgotten piece of history back into focus.
RACHEL BARENBAUM: I understand that you came up with the idea for this book while someone else was suggesting you another book idea. As you listened, you overheard a conversation that you thought sounded much more interesting and led to it Horse. can you tell me about it
GERALDINE BROOKS: Yes, well, it so happened that I was recently stricken with a well-known mental disorder called horse madness. [Laughs.] That came to me very late in life when I went on my first horseback ride. It was an ecstatic experience. Then when I got home someone offered me a horse for free and I took it. So I learned to ride in my mid-50s, which I don’t recommend.
The truth is that I was so obsessed with horses that I didn’t really get into writing, so the very kind curator at Plimoth Plantation told me a story about a young woman who was one of the original immigrants to the settlement, I listened , but it didn’t suit me because I had just written a book with that exact character, Caleb’s crossing.
Nearby, I heard snippets of an incredible story about this 1850’s racehorse that was faster than any other horse and sired more champions than any other horse. And his skeleton had been donated to the Smithsonian, where it’s been a fairly celebrated exhibit for a number of years. When I started hearing about what happened to the horse during the Civil War, I knew it was an idea for me.
How did that feel?
It’s a bit like falling in love because you think this is going to be perfect, this is going to be so easy. It’s like you get a new partner and you think it’s going to be perfect, and then as soon as he moves in with you, he starts leaving dirty dishes in the sink and towels falling on the floor.
It’s always the same disillusionment when you start working on a book. And I felt that this one would be absolutely as difficult as any other book – maybe a little bit more difficult in this case because the story took so many unexpected directions. The story of the horse that drew me turned out to be just one of many interesting aspects of the story.
Let’s talk horse racing in the 1850s. It was hot wasn’t it?
Yes. it was big Think of it a bit like the NFL today, except every single person in the country has played football.
The 1850s were still a very agrarian time. The people lived off the land and had horses. Competitions drew tens of thousands of people, crowds that would be unthinkable today. Because of this interest, there was a lively press covering these horses. That was a small boon to my research. Every little thing that’s happened to Lexington has only had columns of ink. People were obsessed with him.
Let’s dive a little into your impressive research. How did you read all those newspapers? Are we talking microfiche?
no The library in Lexington, Kentucky actually has the newspapers in large folders. I read real newspapers. And the librarians couldn’t have been more helpful.
Great. Okay, I have to ask you about your decision to write from Theo and Jarrett’s point of view. You knew you would risk criticism. Why did you push forward?
I haven’t slept in 10 years. I know this is a problem. As I began researching the history of this horse my dilemma was that I realized its success was due to the hard work of enslaved or formerly enslaved black riders whose skills actually built the thoroughbred industry.
It’s not a well-understood niche. Within the brutal system of enslavement, these highly skilled riders held a unique place. They were respected and trusted in their abilities. The owners of the white racehorses needed these guys so much that they were given far more freedom in terms of making their own money, in terms of the freedom to travel across state lines – which was impossible for most enslaved people. In the correspondence between the horse owners you can tell how much they relied on these guys. And how much they respected their ability. But that was still part of a brutal system. Some of the stories are very tragic.
Knowing this story, it just seemed to me that anything less than exploring it would only erase its contribution. I could have brought the white characters to the front, but it just seemed like it was really wrong to do that. I wanted to spotlight the skills of these enslaved and formerly enslaved people and the injustice of the fact that so much wealth was created by them for white owners.
I was writing after the killing of George Floyd and amidst the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, not to mention the white supremacists in the White House. And it just seemed impossible to me that we’re still in this position where black people have to live in a world of fear and insecurity. I thought, well, I can’t pretend that this Civil War-era history of racial injustice was over, because it’s not. It still has a very loud reverberation in the present, so I had to address that in the contemporary plot as well. Then the question arises: Did I do the work? Only the reader will know and be able to tell if I did the work.
You could have placed the entire book in the 1850s, but you brought 2019 and a touch of the 1950s with you. Why?
From the start I loved the idea of having an excuse to get up into someone’s business at the Smithsonian! The newspaper reporter in me is still very much alive, and one of the things I loved about this job was that it gave me a license to explore absolutely anyone’s business, find out how people go about these unusual jobs, and just to be a fly wall. So I knew I wanted that part of the story, and then when I found out that Martha Jackson, a total advocate for avant-garde artists, was donating a single realistic painting of a 19th-century horse to the Smithsonian, I had it to deal with it. The more implausible something appears in this book, the more likely it is a true thing.
The most moving line in the book for me was towards the end when Jarret says he wants to be free but doesn’t want to join the army. He says, “[A] Soldier is not free.” The idea stuck with me for days. Was the line a big deal in your head too?
I’ve always been very interested in the idea that soldiers are not free. The aspect of the Civil War that fascinates me the most is the ideal man who went to war because he was against slavery. For those living in a Quaker village, such as those who took up arms, this meant being barred from Quaker meetings for having embraced violence. But for them, slavery was a worse evil than violence. And I wondered what happened to them when they went to war and did all the things a soldier has to do. What happens to your ideals when they are tested in this way? It was always something I thought about a lot.
One aspect of the book that we haven’t really addressed is the role of art. Why is it so important in this novel?
Art has played a big role in my life since I was nine. I think my sister took me to my first museum to see an exhibition of Rodin sculptures. And I’ve realized that when you’re in the presence of great art, your soul expands in a way.
I was fascinated by studying art. One of my majors in college was fine arts. I’ve always been fascinated by how people use art to express themselves and it was so much fun to be able to write about my favorite black artists through Theo’s eyes in this book. Maybe it was a bit of self-indulgence, a way of getting some thoughts on art from me.
It was just so much fun to be able to describe how Thomas Scott would do a painting of a white horse. I just happen to know that when you paint a white horse you hardly ever use white! And I didn’t have much use for my Fine Arts degree.
As for Lee Krasner, Martha Jackson, and really all the artists in the book, you know, it’s fun to shed some light on people who deserve it.
Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A bend in the stars and Atomic Anna.