Monday, November 21, 2022

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

I know next to nothing about horses and am, at best, a sloppy historian. Geraldine Brooks knows tons about horses and is a superb historian. Her 2022 book, Horse, fascinated me from the first page to the last. Her character Jess, in 2019, is an articulator, i.e. a combination artist and zoologist who puts together skeletons. She is hired by the Smithsonian Museum to dis-articulate and then re-articulate a famous horse skeleton. Dr. Catherine Morgan is a scientific researcher whom Jess has been assigned to assist. 

Says Catherine:

One of my areas of interest is the effect of conformation on the locomotor biomechanics of the horse. Basically, I’m trying to determine what bone structure allows them to run fast while avoiding injury. To do that, I’m measuring and describing all the great racehorses whose skeletons are still available.

Catherine stepped up to the exhibit label on the plinth and drew out her reading glasses. “Horse!” She read. “I can’t believe it. I don’t suppose you people have the Mona Lisa stashed somewhere, labeled Smiling Girl?”

“Not just Horse,” she said. THE horse. What you have here is the greatest racing stallion in American turf history.

Jess’ story is just one of the threads in this magnificent historical novel.  Warfield’s Jarret is a slave on the farm of a famous horse breeder, not given a last name, but identified by his owner’s name. Thomas Scott is a not well known artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait of Darley, a racehorse who has been given to Jarret’s father, Harry, who has bought his own freedom. The horse is given to him in lieu of a year’s wages, and yet it is against the law for a negro to own a racehorse, let alone to race him in stakes races. So, the horse must be officially registered in  Warfield’s name. 

It is Jarret who raises and trains the horse, and in a manner that differs in  important ways from tradition. Unlike today’s thoroughbreds who are raced as two year olds. Darley is not even ridden until he is much older. 

“When can we ride him? She asked.”

“Long time yet, miss Clay. His bones got to grow. Best let that happen in its own good time. Harry, “didn’t hold with the newfangled idea of racing two-year-olds.”

Instead the horses are not raced until they are four or older, and they are trained to run four mile heats, sometimes three such heats in a single day.

Alongside the story of Darley the racehorse, there is in this carefully researched novel another more serious  strain regarding slavery and the perilous lives of slaves who can be bought and sold on the whim of the owner. Jarret’s father intends to buy his son out of slavery, but he has already depleted his funds in buying the freedom of his wife, and is counting on the purses from races to buy Jarret’s freedom.

Jarret is close to horses from his infancy. “Look at him…He’s half colt himself.”

The first bed he could remember was in a horse stall. He shared straw with the two geldings in the carriage house while his mother slept in the mansion, nursemaid to the mistress’s infant. Jarret hardly saw her. His first language had been the subtle gestures and sounds of horses. He’d been slow to master human speech, but he could interpret the horses: their moods, their alliances, their simple wants and many fears. He came to believe that horses lived with a world of fear, and when you grasped that, you had a clear idea of how to be with them.

Much of this novel is about the mounting sense of rebellion among the slaves, wanting to run and to be free, but so aware of the consequences if caught. Theo, the Englishman horse painter is well aware of how negroes are depicted by artists, and is writing  a dissertation on the depictions of Africans in British art. 

He planned to write of Coon caricatures, Oriental fantasies, the decorative enslaved servant in ornate livery, proffering fruit or waving peacock-feathered fans for a White master. His thesis argued that these paintings were never meant to be viewed as portraits of individuals, merely status signifiers of the privilege, wealth, and power of the White sitters. The reality of quotidian Black life didn’t merit depiction…

This is a superb novel on so many levels, and the journalist, historian Brooks juggles the various stories with the same craftsmanship that won her the Pulitzer prize for her earlier book March.

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