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The novel 'Horse' is the story of an enslaved man grooming a winning thoroughbred

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lexington was one of the most extraordinary athletes of the 19th century. He happened to be a racehorse. The story of his career is the skeleton, if you please, in which Geraldine Brooks hangs her latest novel. It's a human story that takes us from the time of Jarret Lewis, the enslaved young man who becomes his groom, to the racing grounds of old New Orleans and contemporary scholars in Washington, D.C., who resurrect Lexington with a portrait and with his long-abandoned bones, discovered in the attic of the Smithsonian. Geraldine Brooks' new novel is called "Horse." And the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "March" and other bestsellers joins us now from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.

GERALDINE BROOKS: It's such a pleasure to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about Lexington in his prime.

BROOKS: He was the most outstanding horse. He had incredible strength and endurance and blistering speed. He also had a lovely temperament and great courage.

SIMON: Help us understand the extraordinary relationship between Jarret Lewis and Lexington - because Jarret had a different view from the first about training a horse, didn't he?

BROOKS: Well, that's right. So the character of Jarret was suggested to me by a reference to him describing a painting that is missing. And it describes Lexington being led out by, quote, "Black Jarret, his groom." And it's late in the stallion's life. And I tried to learn about who that groom was, but I couldn't find anything about him on the record. But it did lead me to learn about all the incredibly accomplished Black horsemen who were responsible for this racehorse's success. And so I imagined Jarret having a relationship with the horse from the time he was foaled until his late life. And I based that on my own relationship with horses and the incredible understanding that you can have if you can bridge the species divide and win their trust and their affection.

SIMON: There's a point in the story when an owner - and I want to be careful about using the language - I mean a horse owner and a slaveholder suggests that Jarret might have a choice between freedom and Lexington, doesn't he?

BROOKS: Well, there's a lot of tension running through the book because Jarret, for most of the book, is not in command of his destiny. And so at any moment, he can be ripped from his family. He can be ripped from the horse that he loves and has raised. And he can be ripped even from the skill set from which he draws the small amount of agency he has within this brutalizing system. So you're always on edge for him.

SIMON: Yeah. There are two contemporary figures, Theo and Jess. Theo's a art historian from a Nigerian American family and Jess a scientist from Australia. What do they glimpse as they find out about Lexington?

BROOKS: So they're both drawn to the story because they're both the kind of people who want to add their grain to the sandbox of human knowledge. And there are so many questions for Jess. She's an osteo preparator at the Smithsonian, so she deals with getting bones ready for scientists to study their DNA, to measure them, to do comparative work on species. And Theo is intrigued by the lost stories of the Black horsemen who are depicted in the equestrian art of the period.

SIMON: What was the image or glint of information that said to you, this is a novel?

BROOKS: It started just with the story of a horse that was so intriguing, the twists and turns in the horse's racing career. There's great drama in that. And then what happened to the horse during the Civil War - and I was a goner. As soon as I learned that part of the story, I knew it was for me. What I didn't realize until I got into studying the history of the horse and who was responsible for his success was that I couldn't just write about a racehorse. I also had to write about race. I couldn't leave that story in the past, either. It had to come into the present because it's not over.

SIMON: Yeah. And what's the research like, compared with the writing?

BROOKS: I love both. I think I'm lucky in that way (laughter). I think the former newspaper reporter in me absolutely adores the opportunity to get up in other people's business, to get up...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah. Well said. Yeah. Geraldine, forgive me for asking - I think some people will wonder, how are you doing?

BROOKS: You know, it's been very hard to lose the love of my life, Tony Horwitz, and he was a big fan of the subject matter because he loves that period of American history so much. And then he was just so suddenly gone. And I know you know something about this because I think you lost your father when you were in your mid-teens, just as...

SIMON: Yeah.

BROOKS: ...My boys did. My boys did. And so, you know, it's been hard for us to find our way as a family. But what we do, our practice, I guess you could call it, has become just being radically grateful for what a 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 man, and he just made every day like a party.

SIMON: Wow. Well, those laughs will continue. They will warm you. It's been my experience.

BROOKS: I hope so.

SIMON: Geraldine Brooks - her new novel is "Horse." Thank you so much for being with us.

BROOKS: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "HIGH HORSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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