"Horse" by Geraldine Brooks

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Australian author Geraldine Brooks, who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, leavens the history of the great American Thoroughbred Champion Lexington in 2022’s Horse. She wields the imagination of a brilliant novelist, bringing alive historical figures about some of whom a fair amount is known, and about others, almost nothing.  Given her subject matter, it is entirely appropriate that she deals at such length with the American race issue: her protagonist, Jarrett Lewis, spends the bulk of the novel an enslaved Black man. The chapters illuminating his imagined life succeed better than the 20th- and 21st-Century sections, which in comparison, feel clunky, cobbled a bit hastily.

Yes, the deep trust and loving rapport between the horse Lexington and the slave Jarrett form the heart of this book, and provide nearly all its charm. Jarrett’s father Harry is an exceptional trainer in his own right, and has earned enough through an arrangement with his owner, Dr. Warfield, to purchase his own freedom. Jarrett is present when the colt, originally named Darley, is born, and Harry sees the relationship between it and his son grow and flower, and he knows well enough to leave them to it.

Darley is renamed Lexington in honor of the area of Kentucky from whence he hails, and begins to race in 1855 at five years of age. Jarrett is devoted to the young horse, and he ends up training him into America’s greatest Thoroughbred of all time. His racing career is cut short because of failing eyesight (due to an infection), but his stud history will likely never be matched. I invite you to look him up. Jarrett struggles under the yoke of slavery, in which he controls nothing about his life, but is fortunate to be able to live with and work with the horse who loves and trusts him, through the horse’s entire life.

Brooks captures horses in Horse. She imagines their herd mentality and their personalities quite convincingly. I think it’s brilliant, because I don’t know better. I have, however, spoken extensively to people who have spent a lot of time around horses (and not just after reading this book), and everything in the book on this subject rings true. This book is also part horse advocacy: clearly American Thoroughbreds are raced too young, and abused horribly in the process. The other overarching theme is American race relations: slavery and the onset of the Civil War occupies much of the book; Brooks brings this up to date for the 21st Century with a fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black man.

The narrative of Jarrett and his horse took my heart and made it soar. The contrast between that and Jarrett’s relationships with the slaveholding class strikes me as brutal, and one of the chief points of the story. And Brooks avoids depicting the slave owners as cardboard cutouts; as a group, they are more merciful and generous than was probably the norm. The author spends considerable effort on the histories and provenance of paintings of the great stallion; this was necessary for the design of her book, but as I said above, to me it fits ill with the balance of the story. Overall though, a very worthy read.


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