This is my fifth book by Geraldine Brooks and I do love them all. The complexity of the story she has told by weaving together many strands related to a racehorse that lived in the middle of the 19th century is breathtaking. At the center is the racehorse Lexington, who became famous for his speed and even more for his many very fast offspring, including a horse named Preakness. (I thought Preakness was a race, I didn’t know the race was named for a horse.) Around him are fictional characters, like Jarret, an enslaved boy who grew up with the horse, and many true characters, who are given fictional roles. One example is Thomas Scott, the painter of several portraits of Lexington who was in the US army during the Civil War. These facts were jumping off points for an imagined role for him.
Another true character, this one from a different century, is Martha Jackson. She opened a gallery in 1953 in Manhattan and supported and exhibited modern artists. Among the paintings she owned was an anomaly: she gave a painting of Lexington by Thomas Scott to the Smithsonian. How she came to own the painting is not known, thus giving Brooke liberty to make that a part of her tale.
And in yet another century are two fictional characters. Theo, a graduate student in art history at Georgetown whose parents, his mother a Nigerian, his father an American, were both diplomats. The other is Jess, the Australian head of a Smithsonian bone lab. She had first shown interest in bones when, after burying their beloved dog when she was seven, later asked her mother if she could dig up the bones. Theo rescued a painting of Lexington that had been thrown out on his street and later made a connection with Jess, who finds the skeleton of Lexington in the Smithsonian attic.
The world of horse racing from 1850 to the time of the Civil War is revealed as we learn of Lexington’s experiences. As the author says in her Afterword, she loves horses and was drawn to writing about racing and then found she must widen it to be about racism as well. She tells the story of the role in that world of the enslaved Black trainers and jockeys.
I enjoyed the artistry of using the disparate characters to tell the story of Lexington. Though horse racing is pretty low on my list of interesting topics, it was a good backdrop for the story of this horse and those who loved him and those who loved using him. I found a few of the sections of the story to be awkwardly told.
Geraldine Brooks, Horse, Viking, 2022, 401 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.