Last night, one of the book clubs I belong to discussed Horse by Geraldine Brooks, my recommendation for this year’s list. Geraldine Brooks is a well-known historical fiction author whose novel March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. When I read Horse in the spring, I was struck by the writing, the story, and the characters.
Quick synopsis: Horse is based on Lexington, the extraordinary 19th-century bay stallion who as one of the most famous thoroughbreds in American history drives the plot of the novel. It’s also the story of Jarret, an enslaved black groomsman and trainer who forms a deep and abiding bond with Lexington, even as both are sold to various owners. In parallel is a modern-day story featuring Jess, an osteologist who studies the neglected skeleton of Lexington and Theo, a Phd student in art history who is the son of a Black diplomat and who discovers a painting of the famous horse.
As Brooks says, “as I researched the historical spine of the novel, it became clear to me that the story I’d thought would be about a racehorse was also a story about race and as White supremacists rioted in Charlottesville and George Floyd died under the knew of a White police officer, I knew I could not deal with racism in the past and not address its loud and tragic echoes in the present.”
Our discussion talked about Brooks’ powerful story telling, her deep, rich characters, and the superb research that underpins the story. We talked about the tragic legacy of slavery and the incredible bond humans form with animals – one of our bookclub members referred to her horse-riding days and the way her horse was always sensitive to her needs and emotions.
Did Horse transport readers in time and place – a critical requirement for successful historical fiction – a definite yes. Were real characters well integrated with fictional characters – also a definite yes. Did the multiple time periods work – according to our group, the two primary timelines, those of Jarret and Lexington and of Jess and Theo, integrated well. However, the timeline featuring the real Martha Jackson a famous gallery owner in the 1960s seemed out of place.
What about cultural appropriation? Geraldine Brooks is a White woman writing a story featuring two Black men. Our group – a group of White women – felt that Brooks whose adopted son is Black, had told Jarret’s and Theo’s stories well. Of course, as Theo says in the story, this could just be a case of a “White woman, White womanizing.”
An article I read this morning in the New York Times – A Chill Has Been Cast Over the Book World by Pamela Paul – sparks a thought relative to cultural appropriation. “We champion the role of culture and books to encourage dialogue and understanding between people.” Ms. Brooks’ novel Horse certainly meets that test.
I’ve read other novels by Geraldine Brooks – March, The Secret Chord, and People of the Book – and Horse is a similarly compelling story. You can also read a post featuring Geraldine Brooks speaking to an audience of historical fiction authors and enthusiasts and my thoughts on her novel The Secret Chord.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.