the first Jo Grant mystery
Lexington, Kentucky, 1962:
Another painful death in Jo Grant’s family . . another injured relative she suddenly has to care for while running the family broodmare business she wants to leave behind . . another casualty from WWII turning-up in need at her door – right when she and a WWII OSS vet are trying to stop the killer of a friend caught in the conflicts of another family horse business in the inbred world of Lexington Thoroughbreds, where the family ties from grooms to estate owners have tangled together for a hundred years.
When I decided to set part of the Ben Reese novel Watches Of The Night in Lexington, Kentucky, I had no idea how much I’d enjoy being there. I had a horse then myself, which probably played a part, but as I worked on Watches, I got more and more interested in life on the horse farms in Woodford County, largely because of the people I met.
A group of women-friends around Versailles and Midway, who lived in really beautiful old farmhouses (some with horses, most without), had started welcoming guests through a loosely organized B&B network run by one of the group.
Some decided to open their homes in order to meet interesting people; others to help put food on the table. But the ones I met while staying in their homes knew so much about local history and old family stories and early Kentucky architecture too, they changed the way I saw Lexington.
They were all book people, and they invited me to their couples’ book club, where I met a woman who’d written memoir vignettes and biographies of exceptional local residents, contemporary and historical. Reading her books gave me even more appreciation for those who’d been born and raised there.
Which meant I found myself going back to Woodford County again and again – sometimes on vacation with Joe and the kids, sometimes for book events, sometimes just to watch the green hills and the Thoroughbreds, wanting to spend more and more time with folks who’d been molded by both – wishing too that Joe and I could move there and have another adventure.
I had to write more about it too, I knew that. For it’s a land that’s unlike most, where a life lived around horses holds folks together â€“ all backgrounds, all educations, all races and income â€“ where horses bring them to dinner tables, as well as funerals and weddings, when they’d hardly meet in most towns, much less know each other well.
But when horse folks get put under pressure by having to make a living from breeding and raising and training them, from racing them too, for fame and money, forces can take control that lead to cruelty and corruption â€“ and horses pay the price.
Still, there’s a lot more to Breeding Ground than Lexington’s horse culture – that complicated world, based on land and breeding and unexpected luck, on bones that break without warning. For the overarching controlling reality is that most of the farms and training stables are still family-owned businesses, like the vast majority of every kind of business in the US today.
When families add the conflicts that come from making business decisions that affect entire organizations to underlying family heartaches â€“ the jealousies and insecurities, the overbearing pride and insensitivities that come with being parents and kids, as well as brothers and sisters and cousins â€“ rational business decisions become minefields of personal hurt.
It’s a world of subtlety and stress, of negotiation and resentment too, that I know something about. My father was an orphan, raised in an orphanage, who, with the help of my mother, started a small scientific manufacturing business that’s now in the hands of my generation, and our children’s as well.
In some sense, the family business has been the organizing factor in our lives. And I very much wanted to examine the permutations of family interaction in three fictional family horse businesses â€“ a small hands-on broodmare farm, a horse van manufacturer, an equine pharmaceutical company â€“ back in the early sixties when WWII GIs had come home, wounded in one way or another, but working to make totally new lives at a time when inventors and industrial entrepreneurs had many more opportunities than they have today.
In researching returning vets, I began studying the OSS (the Office Of Strategic Services, our first real intelligence service that the CIA replaced). I found the OSS involvement with the French Resistance (before, during and shortly after the Normandy Invasion) so intriguing that characters I hadn’t thought of began waking me up at night, making Breeding Ground a wider investigation that begs for another book.
Yet, the novel revolves around Jo Grant, who’d been a young girl during WWII (who’d lost her father earlier), who worried her way all through the war that her older brother wouldn’t come home from the fighting in Europe. She became an architect, once he returned, with a fierce love of the work, that got pushed to the sidelines against her will by her mother’s final illness, and the subsequent demands of the family horse farm she wants to leave behind.
Breeding Ground‘s “written” by Jo, and the ways in which she ends up confronting the struggles that upend her life lies close to the center of the story.
It’s taken me longer to write Breeding Ground than I expected, for I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the summer of 2011, which made me abandon the original plot that entailed more research in France. After I had surgery, I wrote straight through chemo and radiation, but not as quickly as usual â€“ and my “quickly”, as some of you know, is slower than many other writers’ because I’m too much of a hopeless perfectionist who has trouble letting go.
I’ve learned a lot through the pancreatic cancer. “I don’t complain about the weather anymore,” as Jo Grant writes in her “afterward.” And every day has become a gift. I’ve been given great blessings through the experience – contentment and joy when I least expected it – and the fact that a lot of people have prayed for me through it is nothing I take lightly.
I’m about to start the second Jo Grant mystery, and there is a chance it may include an appearance by Ben Reese (though I can’t swear to that now). I hope I’m given the time to finish it, while I live the life I’ve been blessed with, with the only husband I’ve ever wanted. With a daughter and son who’ve grown-up honorable and hard working as well. With two baby grandsons I’d love to see grow-up. With Jake, the boxer, who makes me laugh, while he watches my every move.
What They’re Saying:
“To borrow a beautiful phrase from her own work, Sally Wright’s Breeding Ground is a story that is as small as a wren’s nest and as wide as the world. … It’s a tale of families, and the ghosts that haunt them, of heroes and horses, of the age-old battle between those who value honor and those who do not. The prose is gorgeous, and the setting – the stunning horse country of Kentucky – has never been more beautifully rendered. This is a book you will absolutely be glad you’ve read.”
William Kent Krueger,
New York Times bestselling author of Ordinary Grace
and the Cork O’Connor mystery series.
“…Breeding Ground is a novel about damaged people….[and] in the manner of George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life[,] Breeding Ground describes Jo Grant’s coming to terms with her responsibilities, not through the agency of angels but through the legacy of horses … Breeding Ground features the trademarks of her fiction: a strong, principled protagonist, careful writing, and an evocative recreation of a lost time and place…”
Edgar Alan Poe Award Finalist and two time winner of the Shamus Award