This historical fiction novel, Brooks’ ninth book, unfolds through three distinct yet interlocking narratives, each contributing to the multifaceted story of the legendary racehorse Lexington and those whose lives he touches.
In 2019, Theo Northam, a Georgetown Art History graduate student, stumbles upon an intriguing find in a neighbor’s “FREE” pile—a portrait of a majestic horse.
Concurrently, Smithsonian osteologist Jess discovers the skeleton of a famous Thoroughbred racehorse hidden away in an attic of the museum. This serendipitous discovery leads them on a shared journey of investigation, unearthing fragments of Lexington’s storied past.
As they delve deeper, their paths intertwine, blooming into both a deep friendship and a tender romance.
Rewinding to the 1850s, we meet Jarret Lewis, an enslaved Black teenager who witnesses the birth of the foal Lexington, destined to become a legend in American turf racing.
The narrative meticulously traces Jarret’s and Lexington’s journey across the American South, from their initial ownership by the dubious racing promoter Richard Ten Broeck to their time with Robert Alexander, a dedicated Thoroughbred breeder.
Throughout their travels, the bond between Jarret and Lexington strengthens, under the watchful eye of Thomas J. Scott, an equine portrait artist whose diary entries enrich our understanding of their extraordinary connection.
In 1954, Martha Jackson, an art gallerist with a past steeped in horse enthusiasm, is taken aback when she realizes a painting, brought to her by her housekeeper for appraisal, depicts the legendary Lexington.
This discovery ties the past to Martha’s own lineage, revealing Lexington as the great grandsire of her mother’s horse, Royal Eclipse.
As these stories progress side by side, Theo and Jess unravel the mystery behind the Smithsonian’s skeletal exhibit and the painting Theo salvaged, discovering their connection to Lexington.
They delve into the history of Black men in Southern racing culture and the circumstances leading to Lexington’s blindness—details that, while unknown to them, are vividly portrayed through Jarret and Lexington’s journey.
The culmination of their research leads to a poignant revelation: the final, missing portrait of Lexington, acquired by Jarret after the horse’s death, symbolizing the enduring impact of their relationship.
The novel reaches a heart-wrenching climax when Theo, in a tragic misunderstanding, is killed by a police officer. In the aftermath, Jess ensures the painting’s place in the Lexington exhibit at the American Museum of the Horse, memorializing Theo’s contribution.
The story closes with Jess returning to Australia, envisioning Lexington running free in the desert, a dreamlike tribute to his legacy and the indelible connections formed across centuries.
Jarret Lewis, born into enslavement in Lexington, Kentucky, is a prodigious horseman, inheriting a profound connection to horses from his father, Harry.
Growing up under the care of Dr. Elisha Warfield, Jarret’s life is intertwined with that of Lexington, the legendary racehorse, sharing a bond that transcends the mere human-animal relationship. Jarret’s journey through the American South, amidst the backdrop of slavery and the burgeoning American racing scene, highlights themes of legacy, racism, and the complexity of human relationships across racial divides.
His story is a testament to the resilience and integrity of those who navigate and resist the oppressive structures of their times, all while fostering an unbreakable bond with Lexington, whose legacy he fiercely protects.
Theo Naade Northam
Theo Naade Northam, a Georgetown University Art History PhD candidate, brings a modern perspective to the narrative.
With a multicultural background and a history of facing racism, Theo’s discovery of a painting in a “FREE” pile sparks his interest in exploring the lost stories of Black horsemen in 19th-century America.
His journey intertwines with Jess’s as they uncover the history of Lexington and Jarret, highlighting the enduring impact of racism across different eras. Theo’s tragic end, a victim of police violence, underscores the contemporary realities of racial injustice, linking past and present struggles while contributing to the preservation of Lexington’s legacy.
Jess, an Australian Smithsonian osteologist, embodies the theme of uncovering lost histories through her meticulous work on Lexington’s skeleton.
Her discovery of anomalies in the skeleton and her dedication to correcting the historical record bring to light the untold stories of those connected to Lexington, including Jarret.
Jess’s journey is not only scientific but also personal, as she navigates her relationship with Theo, confronting her own biases and the complexities of race and history.
Her efforts ensure that Lexington’s legacy is honored in a way that reflects the horse’s significance and the contributions of those who cared for him.
Thomas J. Scott
Thomas J. Scott, a portrait artist and reporter, represents the intersection of art, history, and social justice.
His work capturing the likenesses of Lexington and other racehorses offers a visual legacy that transcends the period’s racial and social boundaries.
Scott’s beliefs in abolition and his relationships with Jarret and other figures in the racing world highlight the nuanced positions individuals occupied within the societal structures of their time.
His contributions, both as an artist and as a person of integrity, play a crucial role in preserving and communicating the heritage and stories of those he portrayed.
Martha Jackson’s story intersects with the themes of legacy and class. Coming from a privileged background with deep ties to horse racing, her discovery of a painting of Lexington connects her to a broader historical narrative.
Martha’s interactions with her housekeeper, Annie, and her assumptions about class and culture reflect the ongoing challenges of racism and classism.
Her decision to include the painting in her legacy to the Smithsonian underscores the novel’s exploration of how personal histories and societal changes are interwoven, contributing to the collective memory and understanding of America’s past.
1. The Interconnection of Past and Present
“Horse” masterfully explores the intricate web that links the past with the present, demonstrating how history’s echoes shape our contemporary lives and identities.
Through the parallel narratives of Theo and Jess in 2019, and Jarret and Lexington in the 1850s, Geraldine Brooks illustrates that the discoveries we make today are deeply entwined with the legacies left behind by those who lived centuries ago.
This theme is vividly embodied in the protagonists’ journey, as they uncover the history of Lexington, revealing the profound impact of historical events on present-day understandings and relationships.
This exploration serves as a reminder that the past is not a distant, static entity but a living, breathing influence that continues to resonate in the modern world.
2. Race and Social Justice
The novel delves into the complexities of race and social justice, particularly within the context of 19th-century Southern racing culture and its ramifications into the present day.
By recounting Jarret Lewis’s experiences as an enslaved Black teenager and his involvement in the world of horse racing, Brooks sheds light on the contributions and struggles of Black individuals in a society marked by profound racial inequalities.
This theme is further complicated by the tragic end of Theo, a modern-day character whose life is abruptly cut short by a police officer’s fatal misjudgment, echoing ongoing concerns about racial profiling and violence.
Through these narratives, “Horse” invites readers to reflect on the enduring legacy of racism and the importance of acknowledging and addressing the injustices of both the past and the present.
3. The Power of Art and Science to Uncover History
At its core, “Horse” celebrates the roles of art and science as vital tools in the quest to uncover and preserve history.
The novel showcases how Theo’s art historical research and Jess’s osteological analysis converge to piece together Lexington’s story, highlighting the synergy between these disciplines in bringing to light forgotten histories.
Art, represented by the portraits of Lexington and the painting discovered by Theo, serves as a visual testament to the past, capturing moments and figures that might otherwise fade into obscurity.
Similarly, science, through Jess’s meticulous rearticulation of Lexington’s skeleton, offers a tangible connection to the physical realities of historical figures.
Together, art and science act as conduits through which the novel articulates a deeper understanding of history, memory, and the transmission of knowledge across generations.
“Horse” by Geraldine Brooks is a masterfully crafted narrative that transcends mere historical fiction, offering a rich mix of interconnected stories that explore the depths of human connection, the impact of art and legacy, and the complex fabric of American history.
Brooks skillfully navigates the intricacies of time and perspective, bringing to life the enduring legacy of a legendary racehorse while casting a spotlight on the often overlooked narratives of Black history in the context of American horse racing.
The novel’s poignant exploration of love, loss, and the quest for understanding across centuries makes it not only a compelling read but also a profound commentary on the power of stories to bridge the past and present.