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Author Geraldine Brooks delves into an untold story of a racehorse and his caretaker


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A history-making racehorse and the people around it are reimagined in a new work of fiction dealing with obsession and justice.

Jeffrey Brown talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks about her latest novel for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Geraldine Brooks to riding just around 10 years ago, when she quickly became, in her words, horse-crazed.

Geraldine Brooks, Author, "Horse": You suddenly are interested in learning about horses, acquiring a horse, riding a horse, caring for a horse, thinking about the horse, thinking about how to better care for the horse.

It really -- it is a consuming, consuming interest.

Oh, aren't you beautiful?

Jeffrey Brown: The 66-year-old Australian-born writer began her professional career as a journalist.

Come on, baby.

Geraldine Brooks: My first job in journalism, after having got a double major in government and fine arts, they sent me to the sports department to cover the races.

Jeffrey Brown: Is that right?


Geraldine Brooks: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: She would make her name first as a foreign correspondent and then build a second career as a writer of bestselling historical fiction, known for her rigorous research, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "March."

In her new novel, "Horse," she's again looked to the past, the antebellum South. Brooks joined us recently at Holly Hill Show Stable in Hanover, Massachusetts.

Geraldine Brooks: And I like to find something on the historical record that is extraordinary and, if you made it up, it would be implausible. It needs to be a story where you can know some fascinating things, but you can't find out everything.

So I'm looking for those voids that imagination has to be deployed to fill.

Jeffrey Brown: Why do you like it that it would be implausible if...

Geraldine Brooks: Well, it's what Mark Twain said. Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities? Truth is not.


Jeffrey Brown: This time, the true history is centered on Lexington, a legendary racehorse born in 1850 in Lexington, Kentucky, celebrated in his day, including in paintings, for his victories on the track, as well as for siring numerous other champion horses.

It comes out in the book the importance, for one thing, of horse racing and the antebellum South.

Geraldine Brooks: It was not just in the South. It was a national obsession. I don't think that's an overstatement.

The only thing I can compare it to, it was a passion like the NFL if everybody played football. In those agrarian days in this country, everybody had a horse or was one generation away from having a horse.

Jeffrey Brown: Lexington was a celebrity.

Geraldine Brooks: Absolutely.

So I stick to riding my own mare, because we have an understanding.


Jeffrey Brown: Brooks' imagination was fired by a reference she read to a now lost painting in which Lexington is -- quote -- "led by Black Jarret, his groom."

Jarret and other real life figures around the horse became characters in her novel.

Geraldine Brooks: And I became most intrigued with the story of the Black horsemen, because I hadn't been at all aware that the thoroughbred industry in this country was really built on the skills and the labor of these Black horsemen, many of whom were enslaved or formerly enslaved people.

Jeffrey Brown: That is a fairly little known history, I believe.

Geraldine Brooks: This is a history that is only now getting a lot of attention from historians. And it really is a remarkable niche within the institution of slavery, because this was a class of men -- and they were all men at that time -- who had an expertise that was so highly valued, that it gave them a kind of a special status, but yet they're still in this brutalizing system where they don't have agency.

And they can be ripped away from their occupation. They can be sent to another thoroughbred owner. They can have their families torn apart. So it is replete with the tragedy inherent in this system.

Jeffrey Brown: But Brooks also wanted to bring the story into our own time, and she found another true-life way in. Lexington's bones had been stored, largely forgotten, in the attic of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In 2010, the skeleton was restored and sent to the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky.

Brooks created fictional characters around these facts, including a Georgetown University Black art historian, whose story weaves into today's racial tensions and violence.

Geraldine Brooks: It is a braided narrative, because I wanted to write about the science around the skeleton of the horse at the Smithsonian, because it really is fascinating.

And it's such an extraordinary place to go behind the scenes and see the scientific research that's going on there. So, once I knew that the story was coming into the present time, I couldn't leave the story of race back in the 1850s, as if this was a story that's over and done, because it so clearly is not over and done.

Jeffrey Brown: You also then write in the afterword to this novel: "It became clear that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse.It would also need to be about race."

Geraldine Brooks: I'm writing this at a time when there is a lot of discussion and dialogue about who has the right to tell the story.

So I'm very aware of that discourse and of the responsibilities inherent in that. I could have written about the horse and the white owners, but that, to me, would be another unconscionable erasure of the contributions of the Black horsemen. So I knew I was going to have to go there.

Jeffrey Brown: We are in this time of very heated debates over cultural appropriation, who can tell a story. You used the word responsibility, I think, that you felt. What does that mean?

Geraldine Brooks: Doing the work, doing the work as best I could to get it right.

I came to the conclusion that it was better to make the honest attempt than to leave the story untold. And, also, I feel like any attempt at empathy, no matter how imperfect it might be, shouldn't be despised, because we need more attempts at empathy, not fewer.

Jeffrey Brown: The real-life Lexington won his last race in 1855 and died 20 years later. His story and the lives of those around him are reimagined by Geraldine Brooks in the novel "Horse."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Holly Hill Show Stable in Hanover, Massachusetts.

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