August 2023 Open Book Group – Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Welcome to Pamela and Pauline. Thank you to Lesley for moderating Horse by Geraldine Brooks.

 Geraldine Brooks is a celebrated writer of historical fiction. Her previous novels include Pulitzer Prize-winning March, Year of Wonders, The People of the Book (OBG September 2008), and The Secret Chord (OBG September 2017). Horse uses the true story of a 19th-century racehorse Lexington to connect characters through time and space: Kentucky in the 1850s, New York in 1954 and Washington DC in 2019

 Born in Kentucky in 1850, Lexington is one of the greatest racehorses in US history. He won many races and went on to sire champions. Throughout his life, he was cared for by his enslaved groom. Jarret. As Lexington‘s career progressed, he and Jarret were sold as a package to different owners. Artist Thomas J. Scott, a factual character, paints Lexington many times. Jarret is included in the portraits. When the Civil War erupts, the fate of all three is changed forever.

 In New York, in 1954, contemporary Art dealer Martha Jackson acquired one of Scott’s paintings.

 In Washington DC in 2019. Tess, a fictional character, is a Smithsonian osteologist, from Australia. She is reassembling Lexington‘s skeleton for display. She is looking for clues to his power and endurance. Scott‘s painting helps to guide her in highlighting the horse’s physical features. Tess enters into a relationship with Theo, another sectional fictional character. He is a highly educated Black man with a Nigerian mother and an English father. He is an artist historian writing a PhD on equestrian paintings of the antebellum period. He is intrigued by the depiction of Black handlers in Scott’s paintings, who reflected ‘’dignity and authority‘’. Having recently arrived from England, his Black friends have warned him of the underlying violence simmering behind racism in America. Even though he is highly sensitive to the microaggression he regularly experiences his vigilance will not save him from a fatal misunderstanding.

 Chapters alternate between these different periods. Brooks presents an ambitious novel covering themes of injustice and the legacy of enslavement in contemporary America.

17 OBGers gathered to discuss Horse. We credited Brooks’ journalist credentials for her free-flowing easy-to-read writing, style. Brooks’ life experiences informed the novel. As a cadet journalist with the SMH, she covered the racing pages. We all agreed she had captured the excitement of Lexington’s races in the 1850s. Her time as a war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal showed in her portrayal of Jarret and Scott’s horrific experiences in the Civil War. In later life, she has become a horse lover. This was evident from the tenderness in the scenes between Lexington and Jarret. When Theo is suddenly shot at the end of the book, one member argued she was reflecting on her shock, and grief at the sudden death of her husband while she was writing Horse.

 Theo’s voice argued that White people could never understand the racism experienced by Black people in America. Yet Brooks is the White author of his voice. As a group, we have previously rejected the contemporary argument that authors cannot write about the ethnic and gender groups they do not inhabit. We did so again for Horse. In the afterword, we noted that Brooks confirmed she consulted with her adopted Ethiopian son, Bizu, on his experiences of racism in the US.

 Brooks had intensively researched all aspects of the story. However, many felt the book was over-cluttered with facts. In researching the provenance of Scott’s painting, she discovered Martha Jackson had left it to the Smithsonian Museum in her estate. This linked the painting across the decades. Some OBGers thought there was no need to devote several chapters to Martha’s life as a contemporary art gallery owner. Even if her role as an early purchaser of Jackson Pollock’s work and provider of the yellow convertible he drove at speed to his death, was interesting it was not relevant to the story arc.

 Others wondered if there was too much serendipity in the plot, especially tying up loose ends at the end. After a chance meeting with David Walsh of Hobart MONA fame, Jess has a dream job waiting in Tasmania. She could return home with Theo‘s dog Clancy.

One member noted that Brooks described Jarret and fellow enslaved Black jockeys as treated with respect by their owners. We referenced The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James (OBG December 2018). Here Jamaican slaveowners showed little regard for their Black workers. Was Brooks being sentimental? We agreed that Jarret’s owner needed Jarret’s knowledge to make money from Lexington‘s racing. Would this have motivated them to ensure Jarret was looked after better than their workers in the cotton fields?

 We noted the irony that when Black jockeys and groomsmen received their freedom White racehorse owners were reluctant to employ them. The legacy of enslavement in the US meant it was acceptable to have an enslaved Black groomsman, but not a free one.

 Several members reminded us that Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and Republican candidate for President had suggested that slavery was beneficial to those enslaved. We feared for US society as divisions between Black and White continue to grow further apart.

 Before Geraldine Brooks moved to America, she lived in Balmain. She was a generous speaker and often presented at Friends of Balmain Library speaker evenings. There are many interviews with her about Horse on YouTube. This is one of them.

 Despite some members’ reservations, we enjoyed Horse. It is a welcome addition to Brooks’ pantheon of highly readable historical fiction novels.


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