Review of the book Horse by Geraldine Brooks

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In 2019, an art history doctoral student rescues an oil painting of a racing horse from a pile of junk on a Georgetown sidewalk, and a zoologist finds a skeleton marked “Horse.” in an attic of the Smithsonian. In 1850, an enslaved boy witnesses the birth of a foal. These are the ingredients with which Geraldine Brooks begins her new novel, “Horse,” and, my goodness, they are just as alluring as her smooth, masterful storytelling.

From the outset, the storyline is clear: it’s no surprise that the horse in the painting is the same animal whose bones gather dust in the Smithsonian and the same as the newborn foal who will find a devoted companion. and for life in the boy, Shank. The horse’s name is Lexington, and he was a true racehorse who won six of his seven starts and became a legendary thoroughbred stallion whose offspring dominated American racing in the late 19th century. Brooks includes other characters in the story: the various owners of Lexington; Thomas J. Scott, a Pennsylvania-born wildlife painter who served in the Union Army during the Civil War; and modernist art dealer Martha Jackson. But the central characters of Brooks – Jarret; the art historian Theo; and the zoologist Jess — are invented.

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Jarret is the child of Harry Lewis, a horse trainer who was able to purchase his own freedom in prewar Kentucky. Harry’s employer, Dr Elisha Warfield, offers to give the colt Lexington to Harry in lieu of a year’s salary so that Harry, if he makes the horse a success, can earn enough to buy his son. This case turns out to be too good to be true. Once Lexington wins his first race, Harry’s ownership gives greedy white riders the leverage to take the animal from him. It turns out there is a law prohibiting black people from racing horses, and so Dr. Warfield is being blackmailed into selling out both Lexington and Jarret. The young man and horse are sent south, eventually to Richard Ten Broeck’s massive racing operation in Louisiana. Of course, the abhorrent and absurd truth is that Lexington and Shank are considered cattle, resources to be exploited until they die. Ten Broeck recognizes the value of Jarret’s skill with horses and his deep relationship with Lexington and, in what might be mistaken for generosity but is really just cunning exploitation, elevates him to the status of assistant coach, a promotion that gives Jarret responsibilities without real authority.

A century and a half later, Theo and Jess are reunited by the remains of Lexington: his portrait, his bones. Theo, who is black, is the child of diplomats, a Nigerian mother and an American father. He grew up in British boarding schools and was a polo star at Oxford before the indignities of racism – from which privilege could not isolate him – drove him from the sport. His interest in horse portraiture is at first casual, then sharpens as he focuses on the presence of black men in similar works of the time – grooms and trainers – who may have been reduced in slavery. Jess is white, Australian and a funny duck, fascinated since childhood by the bones of living beings. The two begin a tentative relationship, their attraction to each other struggling alongside Jess’s tendency towards unconscious micro-aggression and Theo’s doubts about his ability to fully understand his experience as a black man.

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Jarret’s story is one of individualism. His stubborn self-improvement and tenacious devotion to Lexington serve as a private rebellion against the obliteration that is slavery. Ultimately, the war determines his fate, but in unpredictable ways. Theo and Jess are also at the mercy of their time, but progress is a complicated proposition. The resolution to their story is saturated with the same rot of injustice that was brought to this country with slavery and has flourished ever since. In “Horse,” Brooks, who is a meticulous researcher and whose previous novels including “People of the Book” “Caleb’s Crossing” and Pulitzer Prize-winning “March” have all been concerned with the past, writes about our present in such a way that the tangled roots of the story, just beneath the story, are both subtle and unmistakable.

The prevailing feeling is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Horses were cruelly used and shunned by the pre-war horse racing industry; the same goes for modern races. Enslaved men were considered inherently dangerous and were murdered without consequence at white whims; police kill blacks with impunity even today. Artist Thomas J. Scott, initially sympathetic to Confederate prisoners, eventually gave up talking to them because they were “lost by a narrative unrelated to anything he recognized as true. Their mad conception of Mr. Lincoln as some sort of descendant of the cloven-hoofed devil, their utter disregard – denial – of the humanity of slaves, their fabulous notions of the evils the federal government intended for them if their cause failed – all this was so deeply rooted, beyond the scope of dialogue or reasonable proof. If this doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t been on the internet lately.

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I raced through the first half of the novel, then slowed and slowed as I went, so worried about what might happen to Jarret and Theo and Lexington that I could barely bear to the knowledge. “Horse” is not a dark book, but it made me very angry at times, and it made me cry. “Horse” is a reminder of the simple, primal power a writer can invoke by creating characters that readers care about and telling a story about them – the same power that so terrifies the people who are so desperately trying to get Toni Morrison banned from the their children’s reading lists.

Maggie Shipstead is the author of ‘Seating Arrangements’, ‘Astonish Me’, ‘The Great Circle’ and ‘You Have a Friend in 10A’.

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