Title: Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Book Beginnings quote:
[THEO. Georgetown, Washington, DC. 2019]
The deceptively reductive form of the artist's work belie the density of meaning...
No. Nup. That wouldn't do. It reeked of PhD. This was meant to be read by normal people.
[WARFIELD'S JARRET. The Meadows, Lexington, Kentucky. 1850.]
Jarret leaned against the new limestone wall.
Summary: This is the story of a horse. Not just any horse. The most famous horse in America for nearly half a century: Lexington, a racehorse and the sire of many, many other famous racehorses. It is also the story of race in America from the enslaved individuals who cared for and trained Lexington and the horse's white owners to present day racial tensions even in the world of academia.
Review: Boy, I made that summary sound boring, didn't I? My apologies. I wanted to narrow it down to it's bare bones and I may have gone a bit too spare. Let me try again.
In her afterward, author Geraldine Brooks writes,
This novel is a work of the imagination, but most of the details regarding Lexington's brilliant racing career and years as a stud sire are true...many of his foals [575 of them] went on to be outstanding champions, four of them winning the Belmont Stakes and three winning the Preakness --Preakness was a Lexington foal...It is also true that Lexington's skeleton, once a celebrated exhibit, languished for many years neglected in a Smithsonian attic before being loaned to the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky in 2010... The thriving racing industry was built on the labor and skills of Black horsemen, many of whom were, or had been, enslaved. After Reconstruction, the racing industry became segregated and these Black horsemen were pushed aside...As I began to research Lexington's life, it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse, it would also need to be about race.
During her research she learned about an artist, Thomas J. Scott, and read a description of one of his missing paintings of Lexington being led by "black Jarret, his groom" (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1870). So much is known about the horse and nothing is known about Jarret, his groom. From this point Brooks decided that she needed to tell his story, too.
As in many other novels by Geraldine Brooks, she goes back and forth in time to fill out the story. This novel begins in Washington, DC, when Theo, an African-American graduate student in Art History, takes time from his writing to walk across the street to explore a curbside pile of discarded items from his neighbor. In the pile he finds an old, dirty painting of a horse and his Black groomsman. He takes the painting thinking he might write an article about the process one would go through to have art evaluated. Little does he know that he is holding the lost painting of Lexington, the famous racehorse. As he works with experts from the Smithsonian, he meets Jess, an expert on bones, who has just discovered Lexington's bones moldering away in the Smithsonian's attic.
From 2019 to 1850 a time jump is made and here we meet Jarret who is running to get his father Harry Lewis, a horse trainer, who was able to buy his way out of slavery. A foal was preparing to be born. Harry and Jarret witness the birth of the foal, named him Darley but later renamed to Lexington. As a gift, the owner, Dr, Warfield, gave the foal to Harry, but later when it was discovered what a fine racer Lexington was, had to take him back because it was illegal for slaves to own racehorses. When Lexington was sold, Jarret was sold along with the horse. He was no longer Warfield's Jarret, but Ten Broeck's Jarret.
In short chapters we learn about Jarret's life, and honestly his chapters were the most brilliant in my opinion, and those of Theo and Jess in the 21st century, where they have to grapple with racism and living in a world of black and white rules.
Brooks skillfully paints the picture of an enslaved Black youth named Jarret in 1850s Kentucky ... Throughout the story, it is impossible to miss those parallels between the treatment of horses and enslaved people. ... The takeaway, teed up in discordant endings of triumph and heartbreak, seems to be while celebrating progress we must continue to rebuke racism. Our reckoning remains incomplete and unresolved. Horse is a poignant check-in, a lookout point, for how far we’ve come, and how far we still yet must ride. In 21st century America, privilege is still purchased by proximity to power, which is too often equivalent to whiteness. Horse stands as a convincing case that time alone does not heal all wounds (The Millions).
Horse was selected for an upcoming book club meeting and I know we will have a robust discussion on many and varied topics that the book addresses. I highly recommend the book, especially for those of you who enjoy reading historical fiction about actual people (horses) and events. I, for one, really enjoy learning about history when there is a compelling story to drive the narrative along.
|At 401 pages, Horse qualifies as my first big book of the summer for Sue's Big Book Summer Challenge over at Book by Book.|