On a Skeleton in the Smithsonian: A Conversation with Geraldine Brooks

Horse, THE LATEST NOVEL by Geraldine Brooks, begins in present-day Washington, DC, with Theo, a Nigerian American graduate student, pulling an old, beaten-up painting out of his neighbor’s trash. The canvas turns out to be one of the few existing images of the greatest racing stallion in American history, Lexington. As Theo uncovers the history of the painting, the reader is introduced to Jarret, an enslaved man who nurtured and trained Lexington from birth, and a braided narrative unfolds taking the reader back and forth between 1850 and 2019. As the story progresses, the horse fades into the background and the true focus becomes the deep roots of racism in America.

Brooks uses her incredible skills at research and storytelling to shine a light on the little-known role of enslaved people in the antebellum thoroughbred industry. It’s a subject that will be new to most readers, forcing us to face a shameful past. The novel should fuel many important conversations and bring a forgotten piece of history back into focus.

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RACHEL BARENBAUM: I understand you came up with the idea for this book while someone was pitching you on another book idea. As you listened, you overheard a conversation you thought sounded much more interesting, one that led to Horse. Can you tell me about that?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Yes, well, it happened that I had become very recently afflicted with a well-known mental disorder called horse craziness. [Laughs.] This came to me very late in life when I went for my first trail ride. It was an ecstatic experience. Then, when I came home, somebody offered me a free horse 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 I wasn’t actually getting any writing done, and so as the very nice curator from Plimoth Plantation was pitching me a story about a young woman who’d been one of the original immigrants to the settlement, I was listening, but it wasn’t a good fit for me because I had just written a book with exactly that character in it, Caleb’s Crossing.

Nearby, I heard snatches of an incredible story of this racehorse from the 1850s who was faster than any other horse, who sired more champions than any other horse. And his skeleton had been donated to the Smithsonian, where it had been quite a celebrated exhibit for a number of years. When I started to hear what happened to the horse during the Civil War, I knew it was an idea for me.

What did that feel like?

It’s a little bit like becoming infatuated because you think this one’s going to be perfect, this one is going to be so easy. It’s just like if you get a new partner and you think it’s going to be perfect and then, as soon as they move in with you, they start leaving dirty dishes in the sink and dropping towels on the floor.

It’s always the same disillusionment once you start working on a book. And I found this one was going to be absolutely as hard as any other book — maybe in this case a little harder because the story took so many unexpected directions. The story of the horse, which is what attracted me, turned out to be only one of many aspects of the story that was interesting.

Let’s talk horse racing in the 1850s. It was hot, right?

Yes. It was huge. Imagine it a little like the NFL today, only every single person in the country played football.

The 1850s was still a very agrarian time. People lived off the land and had horses. Competitions drew tens of thousands of people, crowds that would be inconceivable today. Because of this interest, there was a lively press covering these horses. That was a bit of a boon for my research. There were just columns and columns of ink on every little thing that happened to Lexington. People were obsessed with him.

Let’s dig into your impressive research a bit. How did you read all those newspapers? Are we talking microfiche?

No. The library in Lexington, Kentucky, actually has the newspapers in big binders. I read real newspapers. And the librarians couldn’t have been more helpful.

Amazing. Okay, I have to ask you about your decision to write from the points of view of Theo and Jarrett. You knew you would be risking criticism. Why did you push forward?

I haven’t been asleep for 10 years. I know that this is an issue. My dilemma was that, once I started researching the history of this horse, I realized his success rested on the hard labor of enslaved or formerly enslaved Black horsemen whose skills actually built the thoroughbred industry.

It’s not a well-understood niche. Within the brutal system of enslavement, these highly skilled horsemen had a very unique place. They were respected and relied upon for their skills. The white racehorse owners needed these guys so much that there was a lot more liberty extended to them in terms of earning their own money, in terms of being free to travel across state lines — which was impossible for most enslaved people. You can tell, in the correspondence between the horse owners, how much they relied on these guys. And how much they respected their skill. But this was still part of a brutal system. Some of the stories are very tragic.

Once I knew that history, it just seemed to me that to do anything else other than explore it would just be erasing their contribution yet again. I could have foregrounded the white characters, but it just seemed like it would be really wrong to do that. I wanted to put a spotlight on the skills of these enslaved and formerly enslaved people and on the injustice of the fact that so much wealth was created by them for white owners.

I was writing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and amid the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, not to mention the white supremacist in the White House. And it just seemed impossible to me that we are still in this position where Black people have to live in a world of fear and uncertainty. I, well, I can’t pretend that this story of racial discrimination is over and done with the Civil War period because its not. It still has very loud reverberations in the present, and so I had to address that in the contemporary story line as well. Then the question becomes: Did I do the work? Only the reader will know and be able to say if I did the work.

You could have set the entire book in the 1850s, but you brought in 2019 and a touch of 1950. Why?

From the get-go, I loved the idea of ​​having an excuse to get up in somebody’s business at the Smithsonian! The newspaper reporter in me is still very much alive, and one of the things I loved about that job was that it gave me a license to explore absolutely anybody’s business, to find out how people did these unusual jobs and just be a fly on the wall. So, I knew I wanted that to be part of the story, and then, when I found out that Martha Jackson, an absolute champion of avant-garde artists, gave the Smithsonian a single 19th-century realist painting of a horse, I had to engage with that. The more implausible something seems to be in this book, the more likely it is a true thing.

The most moving line in the book for me was toward the end when Jarret says he wants to be free but doesn’t want to join the army. He says, “[A] soldier ain’t free.” The idea stuck with me for days. Was the line a big deal in your head, too?

I’ve always been really interested in that idea that soldiers aren’t free. The aspect of the Civil War that fascinates me the most is the ideal man who went to war because he was antislavery. For those living in a Quaker village, those who took up arms, for example, it meant that they were excluded from Quaker meetings because they had embraced violence. But to them, slavery was a worse evil than violence. And I’ve wondered about what happened to them when they went to war and did all the things that you have to do as a soldier. What happens to your ideals when they are tested in that way? It’s always been something I’ve thought about a lot.

One aspect of the book that we haven’t really addressed is the role of art. Why does it play such a big role in this novel?

Art has been a very big part of my life since I was about nine years old. I think my sister took me to my first museum to see an exhibition of Rodin sculptures. And I’ve realized there’s a way that your soul expands when you’re in the presence of great art.

I became fascinated with the study of art. One of my majors in college was fine arts. I’ve always been fascinated by how human beings use art to express themselves, and it was such fun to be able to write about my favorite Black artists in this book, through Theo’s eyes. Maybe it was a little bit self-indulgent, a way to get some thoughts about art off my chest.

It was just so much fun to be able to describe how Thomas Scott would make a painting of a white horse. I just happen to know that if you’re painting a white horse you use hardly any white! And I haven’t been able to use my fine arts degree much.

As for Lee Krasner, Martha Jackson, and really all the artists in the book — you know, it’s fun to throw a little light on people who deserve it.

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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars and Atomic Anna.

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