(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The protagonist of “I Want to Know Why” is an unnamed boy nearing his sixteenth birthday. The events that he relates have occurred almost a year previously, just as he turned fifteen. The boy recalls these events in a mixture of confusion and desperation: He needs to understand exactly what happened and how it has affected him so that he can get on with his life.

The boy lives in Beckersville, a small Kentucky town, and he is fascinated with horses and horse racing. His father is the town lawyer, but the boy wants more than anything else to be a part of the racetrack environment. He remembers that when he was ten, he tried to stunt his growth by eating a cigar stolen from his father so that he might remain small enough to be a rider. “It made me awful sick and the doctor had to be sent for, and then it did no good,” he recalls. “It was a joke. When I told what I had done and why, most fathers would have whipped me, but mine didn’t.” Thus, even in this early action, the boy expresses the sense of disappointment that marks the whole story.

With the realization that he can never be a jockey, the boy turns to other aspects of the racing scene. He hangs around the stables, listening to the touts and stable hands and trainers talk. He learns the lore of horses, absorbs the knowledge and hones the instinct that goes with a true appreciation of the animals. His foremost teacher at this time is Bildad Johnson, a black man who works as cook around the track each spring. The boy appreciates Bildad’s honesty and trust. He also gathers from the old man an awareness of the beauty of horses that goes beyond simple admiration—that, in fact, approaches the spiritual: “It brings a lump up into my throat when a horse runs. . . . It’s in my blood like in the blood of . . . trainers,” he says.

The central event in the story occurs when the boy and three of his friends sneak away and hitch a freight train to Saratoga, New York, to watch a first-class horse race. When they arrive, they look up Bildad and some of the other Beckersville racetrack men who have arrived earlier. The race is the Mullford Handicap, in which Sunstreak, a stallion, will run against the gelding Middlestride. Both horses are from near Beckersville, but the boy pulls for Sunstreak because the horse is special:Sunstreak is like a girl you think about sometimes but never see. He is hard all over and lovely too. When you look at his head you want to kiss him. . . . He stands at the post quiet and not letting on, but he is just burning up...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)