Out of the gate

Geraldine Brooks’ ‘Horse’ is a story about a race horse, and about race.


What do an enslaved Black male born in the 1800s, a Thoroughbred racehorse sired in Kentucky in the same era, a struggling artist commissioned for an opportunity that consumes his life, a sleuthing scientist, and a curious academic as well as a renowned art collector in the 1900s all have in common? “Horse.”

In her latest novel, “Horse,” Pulitzer-prizewinning author and West Tisbury resident Geraldine Brooks weaves the tale of equestrian life for an enslaved Black man who possesses unique skills as a horse breeder in 1800s Kentucky with that of an artist who captures the sheer beauty of the Thoroughbreds on canvas. But for all the beauty these Thoroughbreds represent, we bear witness to the horror of the human cost of this privileged lifestyle that is grounded in slavery.

In another thread of the narrative, Brooks introduces us to the contemporary lives of two people working in America — an Australian scientist and a Black academic — and creates an intriguing narrative that intertwines the past and present.

Based upon the historical backdrop of the equestrian lifestyle of slave owners in pre–Civil War America, Brooks details the important role enslaved Blacks played as both Thoroughbred horse breeders and as the jockeys who brought fame and fortune to their owners. The horses were awarded for racing success with the best living and grooming conditions possible for a valuable Thoroughbred, while the Blacks were rewarded with continued enslavement and the expectation they’d bring more wealth to their slave masters.

It is as though the reader is taken through concurrent circles of parallel worlds, one historical and the other contemporary. And yet the worlds actually lead from one to the other through multiple interconnections. At the center of both worlds is the racehorse, Lexington, considered the finest Thoroughbred of the times, and perhaps of all time.

In one thread we meet Lexington as a bay foal brought into the world at the hands of Jarret, the Black enslaved horse breeder. In the second thread we meet Lexington as a painting to be discovered and appreciated, and as a skeleton to be examined and tested.

Jarret is a young enslaved boy when we first meet him, and Lexington is yet to enter the world as the offspring of another magnificent racehorse. While Jarret’s father is a free Black, having bought himself out of slavery, Jarret spends his lifetime in pursuit of the same privileged status. At every turn of his life it feels as though he is on the precipice of freedom, only to have it move just out of his grasp.

Thomas Scott has ambitions to be recognized as a great artist to fund his lifestyle. When Scott is commissioned to paint portraits of Thoroughbreds by Jarret’s master, a unique bond develops between the artist and the enslaved groom that grows over the course of their lives.

The contemporary strand of Brooks’ story introduces us to Theo, a Nigerian-American academic writer, and Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia who is skilled in the articulation of fossils and bones. Working together they become the sleuths who discover artifacts that lead them to the history of Lexington and his Black grooms and breeders.

Martha Jackson is a renowned art collector and gallery owner in the 1950s New York City art world. When her Black housekeeper, Annie, makes an unusual request of her, she finds herself thrust into the plot of Lexington’s chronology. Both Martha and Annie discover how their own families are connected to the mysterious racehorse found on canvas.

The storyline of these principal characters in the novel creates a compelling narrative that is driven by the powerful force of a young man’s love for his horse, the painful impact of slavery and racism historically to current day, and the unique bonds that can be created in unexpected ways between very different people.

The racehorse scenes in the novel are magnificent. You can almost hear the horses’ hooves pound the ground as they make their way around the racetrack. You can smell the sweat flowing off the Thoroughbreds and their riders’ faces. And you can see the sleek speed of the horses with their tails flying, their manes in motion, their mouths champing at the bit as they each propel themselves faster and faster to win a race.

The other powerful force felt throughout the novel is the impact of slavery and the ongoing tension of racial injustice from one generation to the next. Brooks states in an interview on her website, “As I researched the historical spine of the novel, it became clear to me that the story I’d thought would be about a racehorse was also a story about race, and as White supremacists rioted in Charlottesville and George Floyd died under the knee of a white police officer, I knew I could not deal with racism in the past and not address its loud and tragic echoes in the present.”

“Horse” is a magical story grounded in the history of equestrian life in 1800s America from the viewpoint of both whites and Blacks. Through the story I learned much about the role enslaved Blacks played at this period in time in equestrian life. In today’s world, one would never guess enslaved Blacks who possessed outstanding skills in every aspect of Thoroughbred horse breeding and racing were the backbone of the Thoroughbred racehorse industry.

I had the opportunity a number of years ago to visit Kentucky Downs. I was thoroughly surprised when walking through the grounds on a tour to see images of so many Black jockeys on the walls of the horse stalls. That was the first time I came to understand the connection between enslaved Blacks and Kentucky’s equestrian lifestyle. Brooks shines an important light on a little-known aspect of Black history.

If you are a horse lover, this novel will be a delight to read. If you’re not a horse lover, you may become one after reading “Horse.”

Jennifer Smith Turner is working on a sequel to her awardwinning debut novel “Child Bride.” She will be part of a panel discussion about writing sequels and prequels at Islanders Write on Sunday, July 31. 

Geraldine Brooks will be part of a panel discussion about exploring contemporary issues through historical fiction at Islanders Write on Monday, August 1. She will also be speaking at Edgartown Books on July 2, the M.V. Book Festival on July 10, and with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on August 15, as a fundraiser for Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center. “Horse,” $28 hardcover.