Cbr14bingo Time, Bingo #2 (down)
This novel is set in three distinct time periods linked by a Civil War era thoroughbred named Lexington
As far as I’m concerned Geraldine Brooks is one of the best historical fiction writers out there. I have read all of her novels. March won the Pulitzer Prize. Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and Year of Wonder: A Novel of the Plague were all outstanding. I felt that The Secret Chord, her previous novel, was not quite up to snuff, but Brooks is back on her game with Horse. The novel impressed me on two levels. First, the amount of factual historical information woven into several riveting stories is astounding. The thoroughbred Lexington, around whom the novel revolves, really existed. He was the most famous horse in the world during his lifetime (1850-75) and was the most successful race horse in US history. He also sired an impressive number of foals that went on to dominate horse racing. Brooks also fills her story with some of the real men and women whose lives Lexington touched. This includes painter Thomas Scott, whose portraits of horses can be found in US galleries today, and art collector/dealer Martha Jackson who owned one of Scott’s portraits of Lexington. Second, in writing about this horse and his fictional groom/trainer Jarret, who was enslaved, and in creating a character who is a contemporary Black man (Theo) doing research as an art historian in Washington, DC, Brooks must address the history of American racism and demonstrate the inherently unbalanced relationships between black men and whites with power. The news is full of stories of white writers trying to write from a non-white perspective and failing spectacularly. I think Brooks is the rare white writer who is able to do this without embarrassing herself or deeply offending readers. Perhaps it’s her background in journalism, or perhaps it’s just me being an oblivious white woman, but in this novel Brooks is able to put us in the shoes of young black men trying to follow their passions in a very dangerous world where they must always be on guard, whether that’s in the American south circa 1860 or Washington, DC, in 2019.
The three time periods in which Brooks sets her action are 1850-75, 1955, and 2019, and in each period, she writes from the points of view of multiple characters. These time periods and stories are mixed up in one another, which makes for some intriguing storytelling and which makes trying to explain this novel a bit tricky, but here goes. In 2019 DC, Theo, a black doctoral candidate in Georgetown’s art history program, helps a grouchy neighbor and is allowed to take any of the “junk” she is unloading on her sidewalk. He sees a grungy painting of a horse and black groom and, given his interest in art, takes it with him. Theo has been freelancing as a writer for Smithsonian and uses his contacts to see about restoring the painting for a piece on how such things are done. He doesn’t expect to find that the “trash” is actually a treasure, a portrait of the famed racehorse Lexington by Thomas Scott. Theo gets help from an unexpected source — the Australian scientist Jess, who works amongst the Smithsonian Museums’ bones and specializes in putting animal skeletons together. The way these two meet is anything but cute and is an example of Brooks showing black/white relations in an honest way. These two end up developing an unexpected relationship as they uncover the story behind the painting.
As Theo begins to learn about Lexington, Brooks delves into the past to give readers a biography of Lexington and the story of his fictional groom Jarret. Jarret is about 10 or 11 when introduced to us as “Warfield’s Jarret,” enslaved to Dr. Warfield who owns extensive property in Kentucky, ca. 1850, and who races horses. Jarret’s father Henry was a renowned horse trainer whose successes allowed him to buy his own freedom. Jarret’s “horse sense” is perhaps even better than his father’s, and when one of Warfield’s prize mares has a foal with white feet and a star on his head, the doctor gives the foal to Henry as payment for services. Henry hopes to turn “Darley” (later known as Lexington) into a successful thoroughbred and buy Jarret’s freedom. Jarret is a “horse whisperer,” able to coax and teach even the most recalcitrant horses. From the get go, he and Darley/Lexington share an extraordinary bond that is visible to everyone on the farm. And Lexington is an extraordinary horse — also obvious to everyone who sees him run. Naturally, this is going to lead to some issues amongst the greedy rich white horse breeders who want a stake in Lexington, especially when some of them learn that a black man owns him.
The chapters that revolve around Jarret, and especially those from his perspective, are the ones that will have you on the edge of your seat— angry, worried, thrilled, sad. Jarret, like Lexington, is a valued “commodity” amongst the white stable owners because of the color of his skin and because of his ability to bring out the best in Lexington. Plenty of men want to own both Lexington and Jarret, while some men are jealous and resentful of Jarret. Jarret, because of his abilities, has access to places and things that other enslaved people would never be able to dream of. But because he himself is enslaved Jarret is also frequently in grave danger. The danger will increase as the nation moves closer to Civil War.
What does any of this have to do with paintings? Well, wealthy and successful horse breeders would often, as a sign of their status, pay artists to paint portraits of their thoroughbreds. Sometimes those portraits also included the black grooms who worked with the horses. It is just this type of painting that interests Theo, and so the work of Thomas Scott, one of the well known painters of the antebellum era, is important. Brooks details Scott’s visits to paint Lexington and shows us that three portraits were done, of which in the modern era (2019) the whereabouts of two are known. Theo’s neighbor had the third (not a spoiler; that much is evident from the beginning). The Smithsonian already had one thanks to a donation from collector Martha Jackson’s estate after her death. The question is, why did Jackson, known for her promotion of modern art, have a 19th century portrait of Lexington? The chapters on Jackson are Brooks’ fictional explanation of how that happened and include plenty of factual information about Jackson and her famous friends Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollack. How Theo’s neighbor got a portrait is explained later and is fascinating fiction.
The parallel stories of Jarret and Theo provide some uncomfortably realistic moments not just between angry white authority and a black male body, but also between young black men and whites who mean well but are blind to their own racism, privilege and insensitivity. Some passages that stand out in this regard are 1) when Thomas Scott, a northerner, interacts with a very young Jarret, not understanding the danger of the questions he asks, 2) when Scott, later, asks Jarret about joining the war effort, 3) when Theo meets Jess for the first time. In fact, a number of the conversations between Theo and Jess and between Theo and an English researcher are very cringy because they are so familiar. I think the characters Jess, Martha Jackson and Mary Barr Clay provide some other interesting parallels — white women who “mean well” and want to help but don’t always see how their efforts come up short and maybe weren’t as helpful as they thought.
Horse is a meticulously researched novel that tells several moving stories and manages to handle America’s history of racism in a competent, realistic manner. I found it to be an excellent read, hard to put down.