Book review: History and imagination

In her novel Horse, master of historical fiction Geraldine Brooks tells the story of the great stallion Lexington—and so much more.

Warning: This contains potential spoilers.

Horse is historical fiction at its best, another unforgettable book by author Geraldine Brooks. Born and raised in Australia, Brooks now lives in the United States and her work demonstrates an insightful and nuanced appreciation for our country’s past. Horse is her ninth book. Brooks’ previous novel March imagines the story of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006.

In Horse, the author takes an equally fresh approach to the story of Lexington, the great American racehorse and sire of the 19th century. As told by Brooks, Lexington’s story is fascinating. And making it more riveting is the addition of a fictional groom, an enslaved boy named Jarret. Brooks, a lifelong horsewoman, conveys the bond that can develop between horses and people without being overly sentimental. Those who have experienced life with a special horse will especially appreciate the relationship between Jarret and the horse in his care.

Yes, Horse is fiction, but Jarret’s presence breathes life into the actual events of Lexington’s life. There are many nail-biting moments—times when Jarret’s concern for Lexington is paramount as his owners focus on winning races at all costs. And oh, the races! Two-mile and four-mile heats with a short rest between. I assume racehorses of the 1850s were made of sterner stuff than Thoroughbreds today, given that we no longer test them at such distances.

Lexington’s story begins with the mare Alice Carneal, in foal to the legendarily fierce stallion Boston. In March 1850 she gave birth to a bay colt with four white feet that Jarret called Darley because he resembled the Darley Arabian. The colt was later renamed “Lexington.”

Historical fiction at its best

Author Geraldine Brooks is a lifelong equestrian. (Randi Baird)

As told by Brooks, the story of the colt’s life follows historical records, but her fictional descriptions give the tale vibrance and realism. I could almost hear the bedlam and smell the scents when the pair walked onto the dock in Natchez: “…hemp and pitch, cooking grease and hops, human sweat and animal dung.” The boy, as always, put aside his own fears to comfort his horse.

As the title suggests, Lexington’s life is the focus of the book, but the peripheral plots lend a richness to the story. The author’s depiction of racism in the 1800s—and modern times—is deft, unflinching and meaningful. She manages to convey the grim reality of enslavement through plot twists and small details. At one point, Jarret and the horse are sold. Jarret is led to believe he will assist in Lexington’s training. Instead, he is banished to a farrier’s shed and then the cotton fields, where he first feels the bite of an overseer’s whip. When Lexington breaks into a feed room, develops colic and becomes gravely ill, Jarret saves his life. The colic (which really happened) may have caused the horse to begin losing his sight at the height of his racing career. Afterward, Jarret once again becomes the horse’s groom.

Moving smoothly among three different time periods (1850s-1860s, 1950s and 2019), the book follows other story lines with connections to Lexington, involving art and history. Along the way, two additional fictional characters become part of the plot. There’s Theo, a Black Georgetown art history student who rescues an equestrian painting from his neighbor’s trash (which really happened). And Jess, manager of the Smithsonian’s Osteology Prep Lab, which is a nice way of saying she worked with skeletons, bones and the insects used to clean them. When their paths cross, these characters discover they’re both on the trail of Lexington. Their research leads to a personal relationship.

Art and life

The 1950s plot line follows Martha Jackson, the modern art collector/agent who comes into possession of a vintage Thomas J. Scott painting of Lexington. For some reason, she kept the painting all her life and bequeathed it to the Smithsonian. Brooks’ fictional account of the collector’s equestrian past provides a plausible answer.

Readers also get to enjoy the fictional viewpoint of Thomas J. Scott, who painted Lexington many times during his life, including one painting with a groom he identified as “Jarret.” Though Brooks could not find any information about the groom, he became the nexus of her story.

One interesting sidenote: The 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park coincided with the historic return of Lexington’s skeleton to the city for which he was named. After years of lobbying, Bill Cooke, then director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Horse Park, arranged for a permanent loan of the skeleton from the Smithsonian, along with Scott’s painting of the horse in his prime. The display, which juxtaposes the stallion’s skeleton with the painting, is a stunner. It will no doubt draw new attention from readers of this book.

Adding color

Brooks starts the book’s afterword with this quote from Mark Twain: “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” The author describes her research and separates fact from fiction. She follows this with a section on Lexington’s historical connections: brief accounts of the lives of a dozen men and women who appear in the book and played important roles in Lexington’s life. Indeed, it seems that where she fictionalized the story Brooks stayed very close to the truth, leading this reader to the satisfying conclusion that everything she wrote about Lexington’s life was certainly possible.

In essence, Brooks took a black- and-white story and added brilliant colors. The result, in my opinion, is a masterpiece.

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