‘Horse’ unfolds a riveting tale of a champion thoroughbred and his enslaved trainer

“Horse,” by Geraldine Brooks, melds a historic tale of an enslaved Black horse trainer with a modern-day story of interracial romance. 

“Horse,” by Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 416 pp.

Geraldine Brooks' “Horse” circles two tracks: one a riveting historical novel about a talented, enslaved Black horse trainer and his charge, the famous white-footed racehorse named Lexington, the other a contemporary story about an interracial romance between two characters who connect over their interest in the horse. The result is a book not just about a racehorse, but about race.

While not as well known today as Seabiscuit, Lexington was a champion who became "the greatest thoroughbred stud sire in racing history." His 575 foals included many Belmont and Preakness winners, including Preakness himself. 

Brooks, clearly a horse lover, explores a fascinating sidebar to history that highlights how the lucrative business of horse racing was deeply entwined with the institution of slavery in the pre-Civil War South. The skilled Black grooms, trainers, and jockeys – many of whom were enslaved – have yet to be given their due. Her sensitive, deeply researched novel is a welcome step toward correcting the historical record.

Jarret, Lexington's devoted groom and trainer, is the most compelling and wholly realized character, albeit largely imagined due to what Brooks says in her afterward is woeful lack of documentation about him. But from the moment we meet him in 1850, on the day of Lexington's conception on a Kentucky horse farm called The Meadows, he's a hero who is easy to root for.  

At 13, Jarret is already a horse-whisperer who has demonstrated a rare, gentle affinity with even the most difficult horses. He assists his father, Harry Lewis, the head trainer, who foresaw the advantages of combining the violent stud Boston's pedigree with that of the ornery mare Alice Corneal. Harry has managed to buy his own freedom but is still saving to pay for his son's, and is excited when his boss, Dr. Elisha Warfield, promises him an interest in the bay colt in lieu of a year's wages. But as the value of both Lexington and Jarret increase, freedom recedes out of reach.

Brooks frames the intertwined history of Jarret and Lexington with a modern-day love story between Jess, an Australian-born zoologist who is restoring Lexington's skeleton to exhibit at the Smithsonian, and Theo, a doctoral student in art history who rescues what turns out to be a valuable portrait of Lexington and his trainer from his neighbor's trash. Unfortunately, their interest in the horse is more convincing than their interest in each other, which seems engineered to provide a platform on which to address racial issues.   

Theo, the son of two diplomats – a Yoruba mother and an American father – grew up all over the world and played polo at Oxford. He is no stranger to racist slights, and in fact, on his first encounter with Jess outside the Smithsonian, where he has taken his treasure to be identified, she accuses him of trying to steal her bike when she sees him bent over the lock of his own identical model. He calmly points to hers, further down the rack.

The painting, he learns, is by Thomas J. Scott, an itinerant equine artist trained by Edward Troye, the pre-eminent Swiss-born horse portraitist of his era. Scott was hired by wealthy patrons to capture their champions on canvas before equestrian portraiture was succeeded by photography following the Civil War. 

Theo is particularly excited to have found a portrait of a top-hatted Black person "depicted possessing a dignified authority." The groom's self-assured deportment upends Theo's proposed thesis on Africans in British art, based on Frederick Douglass' contention that white artists "couldn't see past their own ingrained stereotypes of Blackness."  

In a narrative that smoothly jumps between multiple strands in both past and present, Brooks weaves in the story of the mutual esteem that grows between the white painter Scott and the Black groom Jarret, in part based on their shared respect for horses' feelings. Scott notes that while Black people aren't allowed to own racehorses, there's no law against having a picture of a horse, and twice gives paintings of Lexington to Jarret. 

Tracing the path of Scott's canvases leads to yet another fascinating (and partially true) strand of Brooks' book, which involves a New York art dealer named Martha Jackson, who, in exchange for a couple of Jackson Pollock's paintings, traded the sports car in which Pollock later died. Upon her own death, the art dealer's bequest to the Smithsonian included a portrait of Lexington by Scott, an anachronism among her modern collection. Brooks invents a lovely story to explain how she came to own it.

Brooks, who wrote about the Civil War in her powerful 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "March," takes readers to some dark places in “Horse.” Whether on a Louisiana plantation's cotton field in the 1850s, a brutal rebel raid in war-torn Kentucky, or following a Black man just going about his business in contemporary Washington, she never lets us forget the ongoing scourge of racism.  

You can always bet on Brooks to deliver a smart, eye-opening read. But without giving away too much, I should warn readers that by piling on a galling contemporary event meant to underscore America's terrible history of bigotry, she overloads “Horse” with more than it can comfortably carry. That said, not just horse lovers will be enthralled by this often heart-pounding novel about the legacy of a remarkable thoroughbred.

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR.

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