Horse – Once again, Geraldine Brooks uncovers little known parts of our American history. She moves us from 2019 back to the pre-Civil War south, and back to today’s headlines. Horseracing, Black history, mystery, the novel Horse has it all.
I am not horsing around when I tell you that this month’s “must-read” is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks’ newest novel, Horse. Historical fiction doesn’t get much better. The novel begins in 2019 when a young Black man, a writer in a graduate program at Georgetown University, retrieves from his neighbor’s already picked-over curbside “Free Stuff” an old oil painting of a racehorse.
We all love a good mystery, and historical mysteries can be as enticing as any fictional murder mystery. In Chapter Two, (still in the year 2019) we meet Jess, a young zoologist whose field is putting ancient bones together (articulating) for museum display purposes. Her present job is putting together the newly arrived dismantled bones of a famous American racehorse that had been displayed long ago in a London museum. Jess works at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. So, where’s the history if the story begins in 2019? Hold your horses.
The third chapter is “Warfield’s Jarret, The Meadows, Lexington, Kentucky, 1850.” The Meadows is a thoroughbred breeding farm owned by a Dr. Warfield, widely known for his race-winning thoroughbreds. And Jarret? Remember, this is pre-Civil War south. Warfield not only owns all the thoroughbreds on his farm, but he also owns slaves, and Jarret is the five-year-old slave son of his Black horse trainer, Harry Lewis, who has purchased his own freedom. Black trainers and jockeys have deep roots in American horseracing. In the same chapter, we witness the birth of a foal who will be called Darley, but in one of several ownerships, Darley will be renamed Lexington. Young Jarret will remain with Lexington until the horse’s death in 1875.
Brooks moves the Smithsonian side of the story between the years 2019-2020, and the backstory of all that research, scientific, historical, and social, taking place in the South from1850, all the way to 1875, in New York, New York.
The story is really a puzzle. Let’s start with the discarded painting of a thoroughbred racehorse. What is the horse’s name, and who is the painter? And who is the famous American racehorse whose bones are being studied before being articulated for display? And the importance of the painter who painted Darley as a foal? What about the malformation of the horse’s left lateral, lacrimal bone? A blind racehorse? And the attempted theft of Lexington by Confederate outlaws? And the other painting of the same horse and his young Black groom? How did Lexington escape the south to become a world-renowned stud, who can be found in the pedigree of Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby?
Horse is the continuing story of America’s love of horses, of horseracing, and sadly, racism.
Horseracing in the United States is still a hugely popular sport, but its Black American roots are seldom found in our history books. Geraldine Brooks’ Horse a compelling and fact-based (Lexington’s Historical Connections) novel deserving of its own blanket of red roses. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book; The Secret Chord; Nine Parts of Desire; Foreign Correspondence; The Prophet’s Daughters; Dames and Daughters of Colonial Days; Daughters of the French Court; Dames and Daughters of the Young Republic; Caleb’s Crossing.
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