The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Horse
Horse
A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks

Hardcover (14 Jun 2022), 416 pages.
Publisher: Viking
ISBN-13: 9780399562969
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A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history.

Kentucky, 1850. An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack.

New York City, 1954. Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.

Washington, DC, 2019. Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse—one studying the stallion's bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.

Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington, Horse is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.

THEO
Georgetown, Washington, DC
2019

The deceptively reductive forms of the artist's work belie the density of meaning forged by a bifurcated existence. These glyphs and ideograms signal to us from the crossroads: freedom and slavery, White and Black, rural and urban.

No. Nup. That wouldn't do. It reeked of PhD. This was meant to be read by normal people.

Theo pressed the delete key and watched the letters march backward to oblivion. All that was left was the blinking cursor, tapping like an impatient finger. He sighed and looked away from its importuning. Through the window above his desk, he noticed that the elderly woman who lived in the shabby row house directly across the street was dragging a bench press to the curb. As the metal legs screeched across the pavement, Clancy raised a startled head and jumped up, putting his front paws on the desk beside Theo's laptop. His immense ears, like radar dishes, twitched toward the noise. Together, Theo and the dog watched as she shoved the bench into the teetering ziggurat she'd assembled. Propped against it, a hand-lettered sign: FREE STUFF.

Theo wondered why she hadn't had a yard sale. Someone would've paid for that bench press. Or even the faux-Moroccan footstool. When she brought out an armful of men's clothing, it occurred to Theo that all the items in the pile must be her dead husband's things. Perhaps she just wanted to purge the house of every trace of him.

Theo could only speculate, since he didn't really know her. She was the kind of thin-lipped, monosyllabic neighbor who didn't invite pleasantries, much less intimacies. And her husband had made clear, through his body language, what he thought about having a Black man living nearby. When Theo moved into Georgetown University's graduate housing complex a few months earlier, he'd made a point of greeting the neighbors. Most responded with a friendly smile. But the guy across the street hadn't even made eye contact. The only time Theo had heard his voice was when it was raised, yelling at his wife.

It was a week since the ambulance had come in the night. Like most city dwellers, Theo could sleep right through a siren that Dopplered away, but this one had hiccuped to sudden silence. Theo jolted awake to spinning lights bathing his walls in a wash of blue and red. He jumped out of bed, ready to help if he could. But in the end, he and Clancy just stood and watched as the EMTs brought out the body bag, turned the lights off, and drove silently away.

At his grandmother's house in Lagos, any death in the neighborhood caused a flurry in the kitchen. As a kid visiting on school holidays, he'd often been tasked with delivering the steaming platters of food to the bereaved. So he made a stew the next day, wrote a condolence card, and carried it across the street. When no one answered the door, he left it on the stoop. An hour later, he found it back on his own doorstep with a terse note: Thanks but I don't like chicken. Theo looked down at Clancy and shrugged. "I thought everyone liked chicken." They ate it themselves. It was delicious, infused with the complex flavors of grilled peppers and his homemade, slow-simmered stock. Not that Clancy, the kelpie, cared about that. In the no-nonsense insouciance of his hardy breed, he'd eat anything.

The thought of that casserole made Theo's mouth water. He glanced at the clock in the corner of his laptop. Four p.m. Too early to quit. As he started typing, Clancy circled under the desk and flopped back down across his instep.

These arresting compelling images are the only known surviving works created by an artist born into slavery enslaved. Vernacular, yet eloquent, they become semaphores from a world convulsed. Living Surviving through the Civil War, forsaking escaping the tyranny of the plantation for a marginalized life in the city, the artist seems compelled to bear witness to his own reality, paradoxically exigent yet rich.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Horse by Geraldine Brooks. Copyright © 2022 by Geraldine Brooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. On page 28 (Theo, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 2019), Theo reflects that depictions of horses are among the oldest art humans created. The book's epigraphs reflect on the significance of Lexington—in his day, an even bigger celebrity than Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Discuss the enduring human fascination with horses—do they move you more than other animals, and if so, why?
  2. Theo and Jess are both obsessed with their rarefied fields of expertise. Does the author manage to convey why these unusual careers can be so compelling? If so, how?
  3. Jarret's connection with horses is presented as stronger than his bonds with people. How does his love for and dedication to Lexington help or hamper his coming of age and his transformation over the course of the novel?
  4. Horseracing in the mid-nineteenth century was very different to its modern iteration. What surprised you? Do you think horseracing today takes adequate care for the wellbeing of equines?
  5. On p. 71 (Thomas J. Scott, The Meadows, Lexington, Kentucky, 1852), Scott writes, "[We] who think we are above enslaving our fellow man are corrupted. Only show us absolute agency over the apt and the willing, and suddenly we find the planters' obduracy that much less odious. I must guard against the rank seductions of this place." How does the author draw out the similarities and differences between Northern and Southern attitudes in this era through Thomas J. Scott, a practiced observer who moves between the regions?
  6. Several historical figures appear in the novel, among them the emancipationist newspaper publisher Cassius Clay and his daughter, the suffragist Mary Barr Clay. What are Cassius Clay's arguments for emancipation to the Warfield family? Do you see the roots of what would become Mary Barr Clay's passion for the women's suffrage movement in the way she is portrayed in her youth? What are their respective strengths and limitations? How do novels make historical figures come alive for us beyond what we might find in a work of nonfiction?
  7. Martha Jackson was a real American gallery owner and art collector. Discuss her portrayal in Horse and what her relationship to the painting of Lexington conveys about her character. What does her storyline contribute to the novel's themes? What did her chapters reveal to you about America in that era, and did you notice any similarities between the art world of the mid-20th century and the horseracing economy of a century prior?
  8. Referring to the Civil War on p. 87 (Jess, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, 2019), Jess says, "Not my war […] Unless you call Australia the very Deep South." Theo is also not American. Nevertheless, they're both forced to reckon with the legacy of slavery—particularly Theo, who encounters racism in his daily life. How does this affect their relationship? What does the novel reveal about the way history shapes our present moment?
  9. Discuss Theo and Jess's relationship. What do you think attracts them to one another despite their differences? What do they learn from each other?
  10. Examine Jess's conversation with Daniel in the aftermath of what happens to Theo at the end of the novel. What did you make of Daniel's assessment of the situation? Do you share his point of view?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Viking. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Historical artifacts related to the legendary thoroughbred racehorse Lexington serve as the backdrop to this dual timeline novel reckoning with racial inequality in America.

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Geraldine Brooks creates a powerful backstory for 19th-century thoroughbred racehorse Lexington, weaving a rich tapestry of historical and current-day narratives that aptly reflect how the legacy of slavery still ripples through America.

Horse truly does offer something for every reader. Brooks seamlessly weaves fact and fiction, past and present, to tell the story of the remarkable Lexington and examine race in America. The real-life Lexington was not only known for his breathtaking speed and agility on the track, but also for his equally talented progeny. Brooks engineers a plausible biography for the horse, filling in the blanks with intriguing research as she traces the history of thoroughbred racing, including the impact of Black jockeys and the Civil War on the industry. This is complemented by compelling contemporary narratives that explore the complex dynamics of race and relationships today.

The novel begins in 2019 with the dueling narratives of Theo, a Nigerian graduate student of the arts working on his thesis, and Jess, a white scientist working for the Smithsonian. Theo salvages a painting of a horse from his neighbor's garbage; Jess unearths horse bones discarded in a neglected attic space. These discoveries bring the characters together and a romantic relationship ensues, complicated by their divergent racial heritage. Jess is Australian and relatively new to the US, and is naive to the myriad concessions and considerations Theo must make due to the color of his skin. Alternately, while a victim of racism both subtle and overt, Theo purposefully tries to look beyond race. At one point, he discloses that he was judged by his former girlfriend as "insufficiently steeped in an experience of American Blackness" to date a Black woman. Despite Jess's protestations that race is not an issue, she first meets Theo when she mistakenly believes he is stealing her bicycle. Jess and Theo's narratives are entrancing enough to stand on their own as an engrossing read. Brooks is deft at characterization; more than once I found myself wanting to meet Jess or Theo at a local coffee shop so I could hear more of their stories.

On the heels of Jess's and Theo's narratives comes Jarrett's, or as Brooks notably titles these sections, "Warfield's Jarrett," reflective of Dr. Warfield's ownership and underscoring Jarrett's status as a slave. Jarrett's story, beginning in 1850, narrates Lexington's time as a foal and Jarrett's deep and abiding connection with the horse. Jarrett is the son of trainer Harry Lewis, and is sold along with Lexington to various affluent, white horse owners. His tale traverses the early halcyon days of thoroughbred racing (as Jarrett becomes Lexington's primary caretaker and ultimately his trainer), through a daring escape from Confederate clutches during the Civil War, and Lexington's later days as a successful stud.

The historic underpinnings of the work are as spellbinding as the characters. Whether Brooks is chronicling the history of thoroughbred racing, exploring the impact of the Civil War on African American jockeys, or detailing the nuances of American equestrian art, it is all equally engrossing. Likewise, each character's backstory is transfixing. The novel ends with a resounding and shocking crescendo that demands an examination of race in America today.

Horse will buoy your soul, break your heart, educate your mind and leave you waiting for Brooks's next work. It is just that spectacular.

Reviewed by Jane McCormack

Boston Globe
A testament to the intelligence and humanity of animals, a stinging rebuke of racist and abusive humans, and a study of how the past gets recorded, remembered, and remade ... anyone who ever grew up loving horses, anyone who dearly loves an animal, will find a cornucopia of riches in this novel.

Garden & Gun
Brooks is such a sharp pleasure to read ... her research is meticulous, but she wears it lightly. And she writes supple, vigorous prose ... she sees a universal condition that transcends the boundary lines of time and place ... in short, she operates one of the best time machines around.

Good Housekeeping
This is historical fiction at its finest, connecting threads of the past with the present to illuminate that essentially human something ... Calling all horse girls: This is the story of the most important racehorse you've never heard of, but it's also so much more than that.

The New York Times Book Review
Brooks' chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling ... [Horse] is really a book about the power and pain of words ... Lexington is ennobled by art and science, and roars back from obscurity to achieve the high status of metaphor.

Washington Post
[M]asterful storytelling...Horse is a reminder of the simple, primal power an author can summon by creating characters readers care about and telling a story about them — the same power that so terrifies the people so desperately trying to get Toni Morrison banned from their children's reading lists.

Booklist (starred review)
With exceptional characterizations, Pulitzer Prize–winner Brooks tells an emotionally impactful tale...[The] settings are pitch-perfect, and the story brings to life the important roles filled by Black horsemen in America's past. Brooks also showcases the magnificent beauty and competitive spirit of Lexington himself.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[Brooks] demonstrates imaginative empathy...[and] skillfully [...] demonstrate[s] how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable...Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Library Journal (starred review)
Brooks probes our understanding of history to reveal the power structures that create both the facts and the fiction...[She] has penned a clever and richly detailed novel about how we commodify, commemorate, and quantify winning in the United States, all through the lens of horse racing.

Publishers Weekly
[A] fascinating saga based on the true story of a famous 19th-century racehorse...While Brooks's multiple narratives and strong character development captivate, and she soars with the story of Jarret, a late plot twist in the D.C. thread dampens the ending a bit. Despite a bit of flagging in the home stretch, this wins by a nose.

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Black Jockeys: The Foundation of American Horse Racing

Black and white photo of jockey Jimmy WinkfieldOn its face, the end of the Civil War should have marked a time in which African Americans would be afforded freedom. But the end of slavery did not mean the end of Black oppression. Many white Americans built their fortunes on, and were heavily entrenched in, slavery's infrastructure. These individuals, as well as others, bore great resentment for freed slaves, viewing them as a direct threat to their livelihoods. Rather than reveling in newfound freedom, many Black Americans faced hostility and bitterness, including those in the thoroughbred racing industry. Black jockeys and trainers who once found success in their fields now found a target on their backs.

As Geraldine Brooks notes in the Afterword of Horse, the "thriving" horse racing industry so popular before the Civil War "was built on the labor and skills of the Black horsemen," many of whom were enslaved. There is ample historical evidence to indicate that Black jockeys were both prevalent and successful prior to the Civil War. Contemporaneous equestrian paintings by Edward Troye show the Black jockeys and handlers alongside the horses, illustrating their integral role and accomplishments.

From 1875-1902, Black jockeys such as Oliver Lewis, Isaac Murphy and Jimmy "Wink" Winkfield won the Kentucky Derby, before the tide of Jim Crow racism washed over the tracks. In fact, records indicate that Black jockeys won 15 out of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies in the late 1800s. Horse racing in the South declined as a result of the Civil War destruction, and jockeys began to migrate North for opportunities.

Racism pervaded horse racing after the brief era of Reconstruction. Research shows systemic attacks against Black jockeys, as white jockeys would use tactics such as "boxing them out during races, running them into the rail, and hitting them with riding crops," according to a historical study by researchers Michael Leeds and Hugh Rockoff. Not only did these practices endanger the jockeys, they put valuable racehorses at risk as well, so owners began to overlook Black jockeys, or worse, colluded with white jockeys to exclude them, for fear that their horses would be harmed. Jimmy Winkfield received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, resulting in him and many other Black riders going abroad to make a living.

From 1921 to 2000, no Black jockeys rode in the Kentucky Derby. The rampant and violent racism had accomplished its malevolent goal. Winkfield's life speaks to the marginalization of Black jockeys as, upon returning to America, he was initially denied entrance to a pre-Derby banquet in 1961, despite being invited to attend by Sports Illustrated. Nearly 60 years had passed since Wink's back-to-back Derby wins, and he still faced deep-seated racism. He was not inducted into the Museum of Racing Hall of Fame until 2004, 30 years after his death.

Long overdue, the Kentucky Derby Museum opened the Black Heritage in Racing Exhibit in 1993, and expanded it in March of 2021. It's now part of a larger collection of tours and exhibits in Louisville honoring the contributions of Black residents dubbed the Unfiltered Truth Collection.

Jimmy Winkfield, courtesy of BlackPast

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Jane McCormack

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