by Geraldine Brooks
14 hours, 6 minutes
Read by James Fouhey, Lisa Flanagan, Graham Halstead, Katherine Littrell
Published June 2022 by Penguin Publishing Group
Kentucky, 1850. An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack.
New York City, 1954. Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.
Washington, DC, 2019. Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse—one studying the stallion’s bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.
Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington, Horse is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.
|The only known photo of|
I've long been a fan of Brooks, first discovering her work when I read People of the Book before I started this blog. Brooks does have something of a pattern, which, to be honest, doesn't always work for me. There are (nearly) always dual time lines (here there are actually three). No matter how well the modern time line works, it always pales (for me) in comparison to the historical time line. Perhaps that's because Brooks' stories nearly always begin with some nugget from history that piques her interest and starts her down her research journey.
Here that start was learning about Lexington, a horse so fast that the modern-day stopwatch was invented to be able to time him and who sired 236 winners, including Preakness from whom the now-famous race is named. And then he disappeared from history, his articulated skeleton languishing for years in a Smithsonian attic. In her research, Brooks also discovered that Lexington had been painted by several painters, including a lost painting that was referenced to include "black Jarrett." Brooks also discovered the crucial part that enslaved persons played in antebellum horse racing - they were grooms, trainers, and jockeys.
|Painting of Lexington by Thomas Scott|
It is Jarrett, and his relationship with Lexington, that is the true heart of this book, the two sold together from one rich man to another. Lexington isn't the only historical figure that Brooks includes in the book - each of Lexington's owners, his first trainer, abolitionist politician Cassius Marcellus Clay, and itinerate painter Thomas Scott are also featured in the book.
Jarrett, and the role enslaved persons played in horse racing, launched Brooks' book; but as she wrote, Brooks discovered that her story needed to be about race, not just racing. How she fared with this is the subject of some debate; a white woman writing the stories of two young black men is a risk, one Brooks was bold enough to point out in the book. Here again, I felt like she addressed this situation better in the historical parts of the book and was disappointed in how she finished out the modern story line in regard to this.
Brooks is always strongest when she's using her research to guide her stories; her books are always filled with details but rarely to the point where I feel like she's trying to cram in everything she's learned. Here we learn about how scientists clean bones, how skeletons can reveal so much about an animals life, about art preservation, and, most of all about horse racing in a time when horse racing was a much different sport.
The book is told from several points of view, fleshing out the full history of the characters and their stories, including the only first person narrative told as diary entries made by Scott. As with the time lines, some of the points of view are stronger than others. The audiobook uses multiple readers for the different points of view and only one really didn't work for me; otherwise, the readers served to enhance the reading experience for me.
Is it sometimes a bumpy ride? Yes. But despite the flaws, I really enjoyed this one; Brooks' strengths far outweigh the faults in my opinion. And, as always with her books, Brooks has been doing some digging on my own to learn more about the subjects she's presented and the historical figures she's included. I'm always a fan of a book that makes me want to keep learning.