Historical fiction, as a genre, encompasses a wide-ranging subset of stories. Some aim to dramatize the lives of famous people (there is a small cottage industry of these sorts of books built almost solely around England’s Tudor dynasty). In contrast, others aim to highlight stories from lesser-known corners of the globe or explore the lives of traditionally marginalized or excluded groups. And even more are just modern tales in period dress, with little interest in the specifics of various historical time periods beyond their clothing styles. (All of these subgenres are completely valid, by the way, and all worth your time!)
But few authors can claim the range of Geraldine Brooks, whose stories have encompassed everything from plague in seventeenth-century England (Year of Wonders) and the Biblical King David (The Secret Chord) to the first Native American to graduate from Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing) and even a retelling of Little Women that explored the life of the family’s mostly absent father (March). What truly sets her work apart from many others, however, is the rigorous and extensive nature of her research into whatever subject matter she’s focused on, which shines through on every page. Readers will not only enjoy Brooks’s well-told tales but will also likely learn something new along the way.
Such is the case with her latest novel, Horse, a tale ostensibly focuses on horse racing in the antebellum South but uses the real-life story of a famous 19th-century racehorse to comment on the deep roots and long-tail impact of racism in America. Though Lexington’s name has not necessarily been enshrined in popular culture the same way that, say, Secretariat’s was, the horse was one of the most popular figures of his day, winning all of his races by commanding margins and eventually becoming the most successful sire of the second half of the 19th century. Here, Lexington is both a character and a narrative linchpin, as Brooks intertwines the real-life 19th-century story of the horse with the 21st-century discovery of his portrait and the two young Black men whose lives were indelibly impacted by him.
The end result is a deliciously dense, character-rich exploration of the world of horse racing that still manages to make some stinging observations about the modern-day state of race in America. Told across dual timelines set in both 1850s Kentucky and 2020s Washington, D.C. (with an intriguingly weird stop in 1950s New York in which Jackson Pollock makes an appearance), Brooks deftly explores the deep roots and pervasive persistence of structural racism.
Horse initially follows Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo who discovers a dingy canvas of a horse in his neighbor’s trash and decides to research it for a Smithsonian magazine piece. Along the way, he is introduced to Jess, a Smithsonian bone specialist who turns out to be restoring a skeleton of the same horse for an exhibit. That horse, of course, is Lexington, who was raised by Warfield’s Jarret, an enslaved boy who essentially grows up alongside his beloved colt and who must navigate the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War.
As Horse delves deeper into Lexington’s history, it also shows us Jess and Theo falling in love in the present-day timeline and attempting to navigate the prejudices and microaggressions of an interracial relationship. Throughout the novel, the facts of their affair are generally less interesting than the intersections of race and privilege their connection forces them both to confront—the pair first meet when she wrongly believes him to be stealing her bike—and there are moments where it’s easy to wonder if Brooks, a White Australian-American woman, was necessarily the right voice to tell this story. (I tend to come down on the side of the fact that the book as a whole is good enough to make up for the occasional awkwardness in this regard, but your mileage can and certainly will vary on this point.)
A hard narrative swerve toward the end of the novel toes the line of melodrama but drives home the point that, as much as we’d like to believe differently, the poisonous legacy of slavery and racism is still alive and well in America today. But Brooks’ story is at its best during the segments which illuminate both Jarret’s life and the largely unexplored stories of the other Black grooms, trainers, and jockeys who all played a central role in the antebellum thoroughbred industry.
Generally, these figures are left to languish on the margins of history—an area that Brooks as an author is always keen to explore—but Horse is deeply interested in illustrating just how much of what we understand as the world of horse racing today is due to the stolen labor of these same men, many of whom’s names have been lost to time.
In all honesty, Jarret’s story is compelling enough to carry the novel in its own right. As a young man, he and he and his father strike a deal with Kentucky physician Elisa Warfield: in lieu of a year’s wages they’re to be granted a stake in Lexington’s—then a colt known as Darnley—-race winnings. This is a richly exciting prospect for Harry Lewis, a freed Black man and talented horse trainer, who longs to use Darnley’s winnings to buy his son Jarret’s freedom.
Thanks to the talent and training of both men, particularly Jarret’s round-the-clock dedication to the colt, they end up raising one of the greatest horses in turf history. But I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to most readers that their deal collapses—along with Jarret’s dreams of freedom—almost as soon as Darnley starts to see real success (and, of course, financial returns).
As both Jarrett and Lexington are sold from one wealthy white horse breeder to another, their stories are also reflected in the constant changing hands of the art that depicts them, each stamped with uncomfortable ownership and increasingly fancier cages and frames. (One of the most jarring aspects of the book is the way that Jarret’s chapter headings change based on the person who owns him at the time it takes place: Warfield’s Jarret, Ten Broeck’s Jarret, etc.)
And while Horse is occasionally a bit preoccupied with the strange, almost fanciful serendipities of the animal’s life and death—a historical painting of Lexington really was found in the trash, the horse’s skeleton really was rediscovered in the attic of the Smithsonian at one point, the real-life stallion has vague connections to both Ulysses S. Grant and Jackson Pollock—this is what Brooks gets right: the monstrous and the magical at the heart of the myth of America, and the uncomfortable ways that our history doesn’t always look that different from our right now.
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.