How The Issues Of “Horse” Speak To Persistent Social Issues

Mar 15, 2023 at 3:41 pm
Author Geraldine Brooks will appear at the Kentucky Author Forum on March 27.
Author Geraldine Brooks will appear at the Kentucky Author Forum on March 27.

“Horse” by Geraldine Brooks (Viking; 404 pgs., $28)

How might we mark time in Louisville this March of 2023? Derby Season is fast approaching—soon the beginning of the pinnacle celebration for the sporting institution that has brought the region its greatest fame and much of its fortune and culture going back to the mid-19th century. Human and equine, teamed together to bring about a uniquely exciting spectacle.

Another view, not unrelated: it’s been just about three years since the death of Breonna Taylor, and it’s difficult accounting for the true changes in recognition and respect and treatment, from that mid-19th century to today, for those who did so much for that culture and those institutions. And the Black population, whether or not legally enslaved, made these contributions under yokes of oppression that often stood stubborn.  

Historical fiction can enrich readers’ minds to consider questions of how things were, how they’ve come to be, and how change might come about. This type of writing can avail itself to many devices of character development, choices of well-researched detail, and arcs of plot—but few weave them all as well as Geraldine Brooks. With her latest novel “Horse,” the Pulitzer winner (for 2005’s “March”) has created a tapestry with multiple points of view across multiple time frames—all refractions of a singular figure with four hooves: the great true-life stallion, Lexington.

This book retains remarkably clear focus despite being a kaleidoscope of time, locations, and situations. Though Lexington passed on before the 20th century, Brooks incorporates vocations, passions, and curiosities of scientists, journalists, artists, and art collectors of today (plus revealingly reinforcing sidelights from the 1950s). Of course there is much about the pre-Civil War trainers and jockeys, along with plantation- and racetrack-holding families—with the latter often owning or otherwise holding power over the former.

The delicate stewardship of raising each foal to its potential, the considerations of horse-breeding and racing as business, the thrill of seeing a record-breaker on the way to becoming the best of all time (at the track, and again later at stud)—that’s all in here. Alongside the exceptional stallion throughout its life is a fictional composite figure holding much of this book together. Many chapters here amount to a dynamic biography of groom/trainer Jarrett Lewis. Brooks carefully developed this character by first exhausting records from old journals, paintings, and a single photograph, which were then (as pointed out in her afterword) “bolstered by details of other skilled Black horsemen involved in the stallion’s welfare.”

Considering the author’s journalistic experience, it’s not surprising her dramatic suppositions for this character and his time are complemented through carefully crafted interactions of modern characters. There are scientists who study how Lexington’s skeleton had been preserved for tourists—imperfectly, and clearly in need of revisitation. Meanwhile, a graduate student of the arts is interested in the Black horsemen posed around horses by traveling painters of the antebellum, while his own background and circumstances lend friction to the whole of the narrative (and perspective for the reader).

Eventually there’ll be reason to reflect on how, as these sophisticated professionals bring light to matters hidden by age and perhaps by intention, there’s so much work remaining, and ground continues to be lost in many regards. Reasons to draw anger and frustration here are many, as is the author’s intent. The title figure remains a champion, connecting a rich cast of real-life and imagined characters while informing and energizing fascinating history that is seen in the shape of our America today.

 (Geraldine Brooks will appear as part of the Kentucky Author Forum, speaking with author and former NPR journalist Jacki Lyden, on Monday, Mar. 27. Reception/booksale begins at 5 p.m. at the Bomhard Theater; post-discussion there’s optional dinner at the Muhammad Ali Center. 502-584-7777 for information/tickets.)