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Book Review: Horse

Review by Robert McCool

Horse, A Novel (ISBN; 978-03999-56296-9) by Australian author Geraldine Brooks tells a tale of one of the greatest racehorses ever, focused through the dark camera obscura of slavery, when people could be owned like horses. This book is about that ownership.

The book tells the true history of a horse and its young Black groom named Jarret in 1850, before the Civil War. Jarret is there when the foal Darley is born. Darley's name soon becomes Lexington, and Jarret loves and stays with the horse through the animal's whole life.

The story of Lexington is also told in 1950 when a gallery owner encounters an age-darkened painting of the horse. She recognizes the famous painter Thomas J. Scott's work, and wonders what to do with it.

The novel also takes us to 2019 Washington, where Theo discovers the famous painting by Scott in his neighbor's trash. Jess is an employee of the Smithsonian Institute who is studying the bone structure of Lexington, although she doesn't know it's the magnificent horse. The painting is restored to its former glamor while Jess is at the institute. Jess also becomes the love interest of Theo, who is working on his graduate degree in Art History.

But mostly this book is about slavery. The prewar South lives in a caste system. Once a slave, always a slave who does the dirty work for the Whites. And horse racing is a part of the decadent owners' privilege, as the ruling class buys foals and slaves as if they were meant only to serve their wishes. “Warfield's Jarret” soon becomes “Marse Ten Broeck's Jarret”, and then “Alexander's Jarret” as he follows the great horse; training him and taking care of him even as his ownership changes.

Lexington was a winner from two years old, beating more established horses on three or four mile tracks in all heats of the day. His speed and strength become legendary in the racing world, with many betting on him heavily in every race. He made his owners rich, but only because of the ministrations of Jarret, still a slave.

The novel also shows how slaves are treated as lowly animals. They are bought and sold on the whims of their owners. They have absolutely no say in how they live their lives, or who they live it for.

This book also shows the current situation with the Blacks and police. Theo has a run in with the cops in 2019 that doesn't end well for him. Brooks provides a brief flash of the Jim Crow laws in 1955, when Blacks and Whites being together  is cause for expected violence.

Lexington's bones end up in Australia, where Jess is commissioned to arrange and put together all the horses as if they are alive. She goes back home to her native country with Lexington's skeleton.

This is possibly a truly great novel. I know that I found myself in the presence of a very excellent author in these intertwined stories that evoke different times, told with thorough knowledge of two subjects: racehorses and their culture, and slavery in the deep South before and during the Civil War in a divided  America. I recommend this book to readers looking for some historic truth concerning our turbulent past and horse racing.


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