Horse is a brilliant piece of historical fiction
by Trey Nosrac
A hot tip from a good friend sent me to the new books section of my local library, where I could find a hardcover or audio download of the new book Horse. I went with the hardcover. The tip paid off.
“A horse so fast that the mass-produced stopwatch was manufactured so fans could clock his times in races that regularly drew more than twenty thousand spectators. A horse so handsome that the best equestrian artists vied to paint him…”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks turns extensive research into brilliant historical fiction. She finds a subject of interest, collects bones of interesting historical facts, builds a skeleton, and then adds a thin layer of fictional meat onto the bones.
Her latest book, Horse, began at a party when an executive from the Smithsonian Institute described how he had recently overseen the delivery of a skeleton of the most celebrated American racehorse of the 19th century. The destination was the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky.
And what a horse. Originally named Darley, the horse was purchased in 1853 by a syndicate headed by Richard Ten Broeck, a fascinating character who was the primary owner of the Metairie Course of New Orleans. He gave the horse a new name, and the equine legend of Lexington began.
When Lexington died on July 1, 1875, he received a ceremonial burial, complete with a horse-sized coffin. His skeleton was eventually disinterred and gifted to the Smithsonian. Years later, as the horse’s fame waned, the structure of the famous horse was relegated to the attic.
Brooks now had her subject. She was off, in search of historical factual bones. Her search led to multiple time frames and locations, seesawing between Kentucky and Mississippi in the 1850s, New York City in the 1950s, and Washington in 2019. She takes readers on a fascinating ride.
A passionate horsewoman, Brooks’ awareness and compassion for horses leap off the pages with details of anatomical variations of horses, the biomechanics of speed and strength, training regimes, breeding strategies, and the individual temperaments of horses. But this book is no one trick pony. The themes are multiple and profound, including structural racism, horseracing business, equine art, and the civil war. The list of historical figures encountered in her research for the novel is long and impressive. To me, each historical character merits a book of their own.
Many of us know that horse racing was the popular pastime of the 1800s. In the middle of the century, New York had three prominent newspapers, and two were devoted entirely to horseracing. In America in the 1800s, people were only a generation from the land. Horses of all types raced everywhere. Farmers dreamt of breeding the next champion. In the south, wealthy landowners built racetracks on their plantations.
Few of us may be aware that before the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction, all classes and colors mingled at the racetrack. This statement sounds more benevolent than reality.
Horse racing relied on plundered labor, primarily skilled black trainers, jockeys, and grooms. Brooks found evidence in the surviving correspondence of elite white horse breeders and influential owners who deferred to the knowledge and skill of black trainers such as Hark, Ansel Williamson, and Charles Stewart. These black members of the horse racing community who worked in a complex and restrictive environment fared better than most enslaved people.
Another thread in the book is art. Photography was in its infancy, and the business of painting prize horses was a feature of the 19th century and a form of status. One of these painters, Thomas J. Scott, plays a significant role in the book, primarily through his lost painting of Lexington led by black Jarret, his groom.
Brooks carries equine art and its participants across the ages into the turbulent, bohemian, post-World War II art world and modern times.
The side roads of the story are interesting, but the novel’s core revolves around Lexington and his remarkable life. The record-breaking triumphs on the racecourse are vivid, and the sometimes-cruel worlds of racing and integration blend as we look over Geraldine Brook’s shoulder into the past.