Endurance isn’t always a desirable quality. When the goal is admirable—creating art that will survive for generations, or persevering to achieve a noble dream—fortitude is a strength worth demonstrating. But if the goal is deplorable, such as when reinforcing the continuance of racist behavior, the determination to triumph merits no such respect.
Many forms of endurance are at the center of Horse, Geraldine Brooks’ return to themes she explored so well in previous works, such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March, which chronicles many of the injustices that occurred during America’s Civil War. Loosely based on a true story, Horse involves a discarded painting and a dusty skeleton, both of which concern a foal widely considered “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history.”
Brooks shifts her narrative among three related stories in as many centuries. In 2019, Theo, a Nigerian American graduate student at Georgetown University whose thesis is on 19th-century American equestrian art, makes a felicitous discovery, albeit from an unfriendly source. A racist widow who lives across the street from his apartment allows him to pick through the unwanted items she has put out on the sidewalk. His choice: an oil painting of a bright bay colt with four white feet.
Coincidentally enough—and indeed, some readers may find that the events in Horse rely too heavily on coincidence—a young white Australian woman named Jess, who runs the Smithsonian Museum’s vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab, discovers the articulated skeleton of the horse depicted in Theo’s painting. Theo and Jess eventually meet, although it’s a mortifying moment for her: Jess intimates that Theo is stealing her bike, when in fact he’s unlocking his identical model. Together they investigate the history of the horse.
That history is detailed in sections set in Kentucky and Louisiana in the 1850s and ’60s. Paramount among characters from the past are Jarret, an enslaved Black man who becomes the groom for the horse; Thomas J. Scott, a white Pennsylvania man who has come to Kentucky to paint animals; and Richard Ten Broeck, a wealthy white man whose interest in the horse is more mercenary than sportsmanlike.
The book’s third sections, set in 1950s New York, involve Martha Jackson, a real-life art dealer and equestrian lover who gains possession of the famous painting. Her sections add little, but Horse is brilliant when Brooks focuses on the 19th century and dramatizes American prejudice and discrimination before, during and after the Civil War. Jarret is a particularly memorable character, especially in his scenes with the horse and the painter, as is the slippery Ten Broeck, whose motivations are brilliantly set up and whose actions will resonate with chilling familiarity.
Brooks’ novel is an audacious work that reinforces, with sobering immediacy, the sad fact that racism has a remarkable capacity to endure.