Geraldine Brooks, on Martha's Vineyard

During Geraldine Brooks’ decade as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, she kept a packing checklist in her bedside draw...


During Geraldine Brooks’ decade as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, she kept a packing checklist in her bedside drawer that included campaign bandages, a chador, a waistcoat -balls and what she called a “king” suit – a set of good clothes, in case a dictator invited her to tea. But it wasn’t until a dictator threw her in jail, instead of inviting her out for tea, that she put the kibosh on that chapter of her career and sent herself home.

It was 1994, and the activities of the oil company Shell in Nigeria had poisoned the villages of the Ogoni people. When the villagers began to demonstrate peacefully, General Sani Abacha, Nigerian dictator, sent to the army. Ms. Brooks began to report on the atrocities his troops perpetrated against these impoverished subsistence farmers; when she approached the military command for comment, she was detained for three days.

“I was in the slammer,” Ms. Brooks said, “and I didn’t know how long they were going to keep me. And that’s when I realized, ‘Oops, if we’re going to start a family, we better crack it.’

And maybe change careers. A decade and a half later, Mrs. Brooks and her husband, Tony Horwitz, the author and journalist who died in 2019, were safely settled on Martha’s Vineyard, in a slightly crooked hand-hewn post-and-beam house with a dramatically sagging roof, mostly built in the mid-eighteenth century, on five acres of prairie. They had two sons and two Pulitzer Prizes between them.

Ms. Brooks’ career pivot has worked out pretty well. She is now the author of five best-selling historical novels. His second, “March,” which imagined the life of the absent father from “Little Women,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006. (Mr. Horwitz won his Pulitzer in 1995, for his reporting on labor practices inhumane practices in poultry factories and other low-wage American industries, for the Wall Street Journal.)

Ms Brooks’ sixth novel ‘Horse’, out next week from Viking, tells the story of the black riders – the mostly slave trainers, jockeys and grooms – behind the massive horse racing industry. horses in the antebellum south. The story landed in her lap several years ago when she met an executive at the Smithsonian Institution, who told her how he oversaw the delivery of the skeleton of a stallion named Lexington, possibly the stud most famous of all time, at the International Horse Museum, Kentucky. (It had languished for years in the attic of the Smithsonian.)


Occupation: Novelist

On journalism versus fiction: “In journalism, you often know more than you can write. You have an instinct, but you can’t use it. But in a novel, that instinct is the story. You get to the fact line and you can take a dip in ‘it could have been like this’.


At first, Mrs. Brooks thought she had found a subject for her husband. Mr. Horwitz’s books blend his distinctive and dynamic form of participatory journalism with historical reporting: his latest book, “Spying on the South,” was about the dispatches of Frederick Law Olmsted, who reported on the South for the New York Times in the years before the Civil War, long before he was known as the famous landscape architect of Central Park.

But while Lexington’s life was well documented, the story behind the horse’s black groom was a mystery. Imagining who he was became the raw material for Mrs. Brooks’ new novel.

It helped that she was a horse person, although she started riding only ten years ago, when she had a wonderful ride in a writer’s retreat and returned home in wanting more. A friend on horseback assessed Ms Brooks’ meadows and said, “You’ve got room here. You could have a horse. Actually, you could have my horse.

“I should have asked a lot more questions,” Ms Brooks said. The friend’s horse was a fiery palomino, prone to rearing. After one particular throw, Ms Brooks broke a bone in her pelvis and was on crutches for six weeks. It took a few more tosses before she found the horse a more suitable home, and herself a more suitable mount, a pony named Valentine with a disposition to match.

Apart from the horses, little seems to shake Ms Brooks, a native Australian with a steady gaze and a keen sense of humour. While her husband was a man in constant motion, Mrs. Brooks was the calm and amused axis around which he revolved.

The couple met at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and married in 1984, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they purchased this home. The land was the site of the island’s first flour mill, built in the late 17th century. The house has three parts, which explains its dizzying ground locations. In many rooms, furniture legs are supported by wedges to stay level. The heart of the place is two “two up, two down” houses, as early colonial houses were often called, which were stuck together, Ms Brooks said, in the mid-1700s; a third section, which they turned into a kitchen, appeared some time later.

“They like the old,” said Michael Lewis, author of “The Big Short,” Ms. Brooks and Mr. Horwitz. In the late 1980s, the three were neighbors at a house in Hampstead, London. “They have this tendency to move into really uncomfortable places and make them as comfortable as possible. They lived the way everyone imagines writers live – those textured, nuanced lives in those textured, nuanced places.

Ms Brooks, 66, grew up in Sydney city center in a century-old Federation house. A bookish and curious child, she was also an ardent “Star Trek” fan, which is how she found herself, decades later, living in Martha’s Vineyard. Through a Mr. Spock fan club, she made a pen pal of a New Jersey girl named Joannie who spent her summers with her family at a place called Menemsha, which Mrs. Brooks later learned was it was a village. on Martha’s Vineyard. She never got to meet her pen pal, who died of complications from anorexia just before Mrs. Brooks arrived in New York for her graduate studies. But she was determined to visit the mythical land of Menemsha about which Joannie had written so much.

Mrs. Brooks and Mr. Horwitz fell in love with each other and the island on their first trip there. When he died of a heart attack while on his reading tour for “Spying on the South”, collapsing on a street in Washington, DC, Ms. Brooks was at home on Martha’s Vineyard. It took days before she could see his body, and the huge bureaucracy of death, as she said, took nearly a year to figure out. The pandemic, which arrived soon after, was a strange blessing.

“I could shut up and I didn’t have to pretend things were normal,” she said. “I could just hide here with the boys, and that was what we needed.”

On a recent misty morning, Mrs Brooks was in her usual place at the head of an English farmhouse table in her kitchen, a wet dog at her feet (the property has a pond and stream). With its large fireplace and enormous Vulcain stove, the kitchen is central to her. She often writes here – proximity to a fireplace is key to comfortably surviving a wet Martha’s Vineyard winter in a nearly 300-year-old home. And because the ancient Vulcan is the size of a tractor, it can feed a crowd, which it often does.

Donning a pair of mud boots, she showed a visitor around the property. The meadows were ankle high with wildflowers and native grasses. Ms. Brooks practices May without mowing, to give pollinators a chance to bloom. Her overall approach to landscaping, she says, “is to try to figure out who wants to be with us and give them what they need. This means planting native species, trying to eliminate invasive species when you can, and providing specific habitats for the different species you want to help.

Birdhouses dot the property, perched on high poles. There is a hibernaculum, or house of snakes, a shallow ditch covered with stones where snakes overwinter. “I’m really proud of that,” Ms. Brooks beamed. “It’s a snake’s idea of ​​a $6 million beachfront property.”

Valentine, still bushy in her winter coat, was grazing in the turnout near the barn, with her mate, Screaming Hot Wings, a retired racer who belongs to a neighbor. “Horses are herd animals,” Ms Brooks said. “They are not happy alone.”

Mr. Lewis described Ms. Brooks and Mr. Horwitz as “literary souls with moxie”, although their work as historical writers does not often coincide. Mr. Horwitz was particularly consumed by the Civil War, and Ms. Brooks investigated 17th-century England (in her 2001 novel “Year of Wonders”), the colonial settlement Martha’s Vineyard (“Caleb’s Crossing”, from 2011 ) and Bronze Age Israel (“The Secret Chord”, from 2015, about King David).

“It was self-preservation,” Ms. Brooks said, “to try to find a way to connect with this interest in him. Otherwise, I would go crazy.

His strategy was a success. Mr. Horwitz was an enthusiastic promoter of “Horse”. He brought her material from the Museum of the Horse in Kentucky while he was researching “Spying on the South”. And he liked to tease Mrs. Brooks if she dithered: “Doesn’t it look like ‘Horse’ is galloping to the finish line today.”

When “Horse” finally crossed the finish line, after the death of Mr. Horwitz, Ms Brooks dedicated the book to her, along with a quote from Patrick Phillips’ poem “Heaven”: “It will be the past and we will live in it together.”

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