Geraldine Brooks Rides a Horse for the Ages

Her new novel traces an incomparable equine down the stretch of history

A horse is a horse, of course (of course). But Lexington, a bay colt born on a Kentucky farm in 1850, was by any measure extraordinary. As a racehorse, he was close to unbeatable, and such a pop icon that thousands once crowded into sweltering grandstands to watch him race solo, against nothing but a stopwatch. His subsequent legacy as a stud sire, however, proved even greater. Lexington sired 575 foals, four of whom went on to win the Belmont Stakes and three of whom won the Preakness Stakes (uncoincidentally named after another Lexington foal). Not until 1981 did his sire line essentially go extinct, concluding a spectacular and unparalleled genetic run. By that time, though, Lexington’s mounted skeleton—once displayed as an exemplar of the modern equine—was gathering dust in a Smithsonian attic, tagged with a nameplate bearing just a single shrunken identifier: Horse

The ironic understatement of that nameplate supplies the historical novelist Geraldine Brooks with her title and also, in a sense, her thematic thrust: that the intersection of one horse with so many human lives could transform all of them. The sprawling cast members in Brooks’s fictionalized take on Lexington’s life and legacy include an enslaved stable hand named Jarret; the real-life modern art gallerist Martha Jackson (1907–1969); a current-day Nigerian American art historian who discovers a link to Jarret in a Washington, D.C., trash pile; the brutish Confederate raider William Quantrill; and a young Australian scientist whose chance detour into Lexington’s history leads to both love and shattering heartbreak. 

The Australian-born Brooks has made a career of flouting Henry James’s contention that novelists should never venture back more than a half century from their own era, the “old consciousness,” in James’s opinion, being impossible to conjure. Brooks has set one novel in ancient Israel, another in seventeenth-century England. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning 2005 novel, March, she borrowed a character from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and set him adrift in the Civil War. Where James saw an inaccessible “old consciousness,” Brooks sees a universal human condition that transcends the boundary lines of time and place. The nameplate just says consciousness

I should note that, with a few exceptions, I tend to side with Team James. The reams of bad historical fiction published every year seem to continuously bolster his point. But Geraldine Brooks, for this reader, is one of those exceptions. She’s such a sharp pleasure to read. She renders the past without making you feel you’re wandering a cramped antique mall. She doesn’t port contemporary ideas into long-ago minds. Her research is meticulous, but she wears it lightly. And she writes supple, vigorous prose. Here she is, evoking the New Orleans that greets Jarret and Lexington on their first visit: “The smells were various, pungent: the tang of sassafras, the biscuit aroma of fat and flour roasting together into rich, dark roux, the intoxicating fragrance of jasmine, roses, magnolias, and gardenias, and the intense perfumes of the women—old, young, their complexions every shade from linen through honey, pecan, ebony—in expensive fabric or simple calico…” Brooks, in short, operates one of the best time machines around.

Lexington’s life alone provides enough protein for a novel. His original owners were a physician and a former slave named Harry Lewis; Lewis (in Brooks’s version, the fictional Jarret’s father) was cut out of the deal when Lexington was sold. Lexington ran four-mile heats, not the modern dashes we’re accustomed to, which meant that stamina and strategy—the grist for good racing stories—were paramount. He went blind at his peak. During the Civil War, he was spirited north to Illinois to save him from Confederate horse thieves. But Brooks stitches other stories into Lexington’s, tracking the reverberations of his life—and the lives of those who cared for and about him—through the twentieth century and into our own. Most significantly, she plumbs the odious absurdity of Jarret, like Lexington, being deemed property, and the poisoned power dynamic that persists—and persists, and persists—after Emancipation. A shock of a plot swerve near the end throws it all into bitter relief. “A racehorse is a mirror,” one character tells Jarret, “and a man sees his own reflection there.” A man, but also, in Brooks’s telling, a nation too.