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Horse
2022
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Syndetics Unbound
Summary
"Brooks' chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling." -- The New York Times Book Review

" Horse isn't just an animal story--it's a moving narrative about race and art." -- TIME

"A thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty . . . the evocative voices create a story so powerful, reading it feels like watching a neck-and-neck horse race, galloping to its conclusion--you just can't look away." -- Oprah Daily

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award · Finalist for the Chautauqua Prize · A Massachusetts Book Award Honor Book

A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history

Kentucky, 1850 . An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack.

New York City, 1954 . Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.

Washington, DC, 2019 . Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse--one studying the stallion's bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.

Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington, Horse is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.
First Chapter or Excerpt
THEO Georgetown, Washington, DC 2019 The deceptively reductive forms of the artist's work belie the density of meaning forged by a bifurcated existence. These glyphs and ideograms signal to us from the crossroads: freedom and slavery, White and Black, rural and urban. No. Nup. That wouldn't do. It reeked of PhD. This was meant to be read by normal people. Theo pressed the delete key and watched the letters march backward to oblivion. All that was left was the blinking cursor, tapping like an impatient finger. He sighed and looked away from its importuning. Through the window above his desk, he noticed that the elderly woman who lived in the shabby row house directly across the street was dragging a bench press to the curb. As the metal legs screeched across the pavement, Clancy raised a startled head and jumped up, putting his front paws on the desk beside Theo's laptop. His immense ears, like radar dishes, twitched toward the noise. Together, Theo and the dog watched as she shoved the bench into the teetering ziggurat she'd assembled. Propped against it, a hand-lettered sign: FREE STUFF. Theo wondered why she hadn't had a yard sale. Someone would've paid for that bench press. Or even the faux-Moroccan footstool. When she brought out an armful of men's clothing, it occurred to Theo that all the items in the pile must be her dead husband's things. Perhaps she just wanted to purge the house of every trace of him. Theo could only speculate, since he didn't really know her. She was the kind of thin-lipped, monosyllabic neighbor who didn't invite pleasantries, much less intimacies. And her husband had made clear, through his body language, what he thought about having a Black man living nearby. When Theo moved into Georgetown University's graduate housing complex a few months earlier, he'd made a point of greeting the neighbors. Most responded with a friendly smile. But the guy across the street hadn't even made eye contact. The only time Theo had heard his voice was when it was raised, yelling at his wife. It was a week since the ambulance had come in the night. Like most city dwellers, Theo could sleep right through a siren that Dopplered away, but this one had hiccuped to sudden silence. Theo jolted awake to spinning lights bathing his walls in a wash of blue and red. He jumped out of bed, ready to help if he could. But in the end, he and Clancy just stood and watched as the EMTs brought out the body bag, turned the lights off, and drove silently away. At his grandmother's house in Lagos, any death in the neighborhood caused a flurry in the kitchen. As a kid visiting on school holidays, he'd often been tasked with delivering the steaming platters of food to the bereaved. So he made a stew the next day, wrote a condolence card, and carried it across the street. When no one answered the door, he left it on the stoop. An hour later, he found it back on his own doorstep with a terse note: Thanks but I don't like chicken. Theo looked down at Clancy and shrugged. "I thought everyone liked chicken." They ate it themselves. It was delicious, infused with the complex flavors of grilled peppers and his homemade, slow-simmered stock. Not that Clancy, the kelpie, cared about that. In the no-nonsense insouciance of his hardy breed, he'd eat anything. The thought of that casserole made Theo's mouth water. He glanced at the clock in the corner of his laptop. Four p.m. Too early to quit. As he started typing, Clancy circled under the desk and flopped back down across his instep. These arresting compelling images are the only known surviving works created by an artist born into slavery enslaved. Vernacular, yet eloquent, they become semaphores from a world convulsed. Living Surviving through the Civil War, forsaking escaping the tyranny of the plantation for a marginalized life in the city, the artist seems compelled to bear witness to his own reality, paradoxically exigent yet rich. Awful. It still read like a college paper, not a magazine article. He flipped through the images on his desk. The artist confidently depicted what he knew-the crowded, vibrant world of nineteenth-century Black domestic life. He had to keep the text as simple and direct as the images. Bill Traylor, born enslaved, has left us the only A movement across the street drew his eye up from the screen. The neighbor was trying to move an overstuffed recliner. It was teetering on its side on the top step as she struggled to keep a grip on it. She could use help. He did a quick personal inventory: Shorts on, check. T-shirt, check. Working in his un-air-conditioned apartment, Theo would sometimes spend the whole day in his underwear, forgetting all about his dZshabillement until confronted by the quizzical gaze of the FedEx guy. He reached the other side of the street just as gravity won, prising the chair from her grip. He jumped up the step and body-blocked it. Her only acknowledgment was a grunt and a quick lift of her chin. She bent down and grabbed the underside of the chair. Theo hefted an armrest. Together, crabwise, they shuffled to the curb. The woman straightened, pushing back her thin, straw-colored hair, and rubbing her fists into the small of her back. She waved an arm at the ziggurat. "Anything you want . . ." Then she turned and ascended the steps. Theo couldn't imagine wanting anything in this sadness-infused pile of discards. His apartment was sparsely furnished: a midcentury-modern desk and a Nelson sofa acquired at a thrift store. The rest of the available space was filled mostly with art books, shelved on scavenged planks and milk crates he'd spray-painted matte black. But Theo, the son of two diplomats, had been raised by the commandment that bad manners were a mortal sin. He had to at least pretend to look. There were some old paperbacks stuffed into a beer carton. He was always curious about what people read. He reached down to check the titles. And that was when he saw the horse. JESS Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Maryland 2019 Jess was seven when she dug up the dog. He'd been dead a year. She and her mum had buried him with ceremony, under the flowering red gum in the backyard, and they'd both cried. Her mother wanted to cry again when Jess requested large Tupperware containers for the bones she'd just exhumed. Generally, Jess's mother was the kind of parent who would let her daughter set the house on fire if she thought it could teach something about carbon and oxygen. But she was stricken with a stab of anxiety: was digging up a beloved pet and macerating its corpse a sign that your child had psychopathic tendencies? Jess tried her best to explain that she'd dug up Milo because she loved him, and that's why she had to see what his skeleton looked like. Beautiful, as she knew it would be: the swoop of the rib cage, the scoop of the eye sockets. Jess loved the interior architecture of living things. Ribs, the protective embrace of them, how they hold delicate organisms in a lifelong hug. Eye sockets: no artisan had ever made a more elegant container for a precious thing. Milo's eyes had been the color of smoky quartz. When Jess touched a finger to the declivities on either side of his delicate skull, she could see those eyes again: the kind gaze of her earliest friend, avid for the next game. She grew up on one of the dense streets of liver-brick bungalows that marched westward with Sydney's first growth spurt in the 1900s. Had she lived in a rural place, she might have exercised her fascination on road-killed kangaroos, wombats, or wallabies. But in inner Sydney, she was lucky to find a dead mouse, or perhaps a bird that flew into a plate-glass window. Her best specimen was a fruit bat that had been electrocuted. She found it on the nature strip under the power lines. She spent a week articulating it: the papery membrane of the wing, unfolding like the pleated bellows of an accordion. The metatarsal bones, like human fingers, but lighter-evolved not to hold and grasp, but to fan the air. When she was done, she suspended it from the light fixture in her bedroom ceiling. There, stripped clean of all that could readily decay, she watched it fly forever through endless nights. Over time, her bedroom became a mini natural history museum, filled with skeletons of lizards, mice, birds, displayed on plinths fashioned from salvaged wire spools or cotton reels, and identified with carefully inked Latin tags. This did not endear her to the tribe of teenage girls who inhabited her high school. Most of her classmates found her obsession with necrotic matter gross and creepy. She became a solitary teen, which perhaps accounted for her high place in the state in three subjects when the final public exam results were published. She continued to distinguish herself as an undergrad and came to Washington on a scholarship to do her master's in zoology. It was the kind of thing Australians liked to do: a year or two abroad to take a look at the rest of the world. In her first semester, the Smithsonian hired her as an intern. When they learned she knew how to scrape bones, she was sent to do osteo prep at the Museum of Natural History. It turned out that she had become extremely skilled from working on small species. A blue whale skeleton might impress the public, but Jess and her colleagues knew that a blue wren was far more challenging to articulate. She loved the term "articulate" because it was so apt: a really good mount allowed a species to tell its own story, to say what it was like when it breathed and ran, dived or soared. Sometimes, she wished she'd lived in the Victorian era, when craftsmen competed to be the best at capturing movement-a horse rearing required an absolute balance in the armature, a donkey turned to scratch its flank demanded a sculptor's sense of curvature. Making these mounts had become a craze among wealthy men of the time, who strove to produce specimens dedicated to beauty and artistry. Contemporary museums had scant place for that. Mounting bones destroyed information-adding metal, removing tissue-so very few skeletons were articulated. Most bones were prepped, numbered, and then stored away in drawers for comparative measurement or DNA sampling. When Jess did that work, her nostalgia for the craftsmanship of the past faded, overtaken by her fascination with the science. Every fragment told a story. It was her job to decode them and help scientists extract the testimony from each fossilized chip. The specimens might have come to the museum as the product of dumb luck or the result of days of exacting scientific endeavor. A hobbyist might have stumbled upon a mammoth's tibia uncovered by the lashings of a winter storm. Or a paleontologist might have collected a tiny vole's tooth after weeks of painstaking soil sifting. Jess made her labels on a laser printer and included GPS coordinates for where the specimen had been found. Past curators left a more personal mark, their handwritten cards in sepia-toned ink. Those nineteenth-century preparators had plied their craft ignorant of DNA and all the vital data it would one day yield. It thrilled Jess to think that when she closed the drawer on a newly filed specimen, it might be opened in fifty or a hundred years by a scientist seeking answers to questions she didn't yet know how to ask, using tools of analysis she couldn't even yet imagine. She hadn't meant to stay in America. But careers can be as accidental as car wrecks. Just as she graduated, the Smithsonian offered her a four-month contract to go to French Guiana to collect rainforest specimens. Not many girls from Burwood Road in western Sydney got to go to French Guiana and bounce through the rainforest with scorpion specimens pegged across the jeep like so much drying laundry. Another offer followed: Kenya, to compare contemporary species on Mount Kilimanjaro with those gathered by Teddy Roosevelt's expedition a hundred years earlier. At the end of that trip, Jess was packing her few possessions, ready to go home to get on with what she still considered her real life, when the Smithsonian offered her a permanent position, managing their vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab at the Museum Support Center in Maryland. It was a brand-new facility and the job vacancy was unexpected. The manager who had designed the lab had been struck down by a sudden allergy to frass, the soft, dusty excrement of dermestid beetles. Those beetles were the preferred and best means of bone cleaning, so being unable to work with them without breaking into hives signaled the need for a change of occupation. The Smithsonian's nickname was "the Attic of America." Support was the attic's attic: a sprawling twelve miles of storage that housed priceless scientific and artistic collections. Jess had thought she wouldn't want to work out in the suburbs, far from the public face of the museum. But when she walked down the vast connecting corridor known as "the street," linking the zigzag of metal-sheathed, climate-controlled buildings in which all kinds of science took place, she knew she'd arrived at the epicenter of her profession. After her interview she and the director walked across a verdant campus flanked by the botany department's greenhouses. He pointed out a newly built storage pod, looming windowless above the greenhouses. "We just opened that one, to house the wet collection," he said. "After 9/11, we realized it wasn't prudent to have twenty-five million biological specimens in combustible fluids crammed in a basement a couple of blocks from the Capitol. So now they're here." The Osteo Prep Lab was farther on, in a building of its own, tucked off at the edge of the campus nearest the highway. "If you get, say, an elephant carcass from the National Zoo, it's pungent," the director explained, "so we sited your lab as far from everyone else as possible." Your lab. Jess hadn't thought of herself as ambitious, but she realized she badly wanted this responsibility. Inside, the lab gleamed: a necropsy suite with a hydraulic table, a two-ton hoist, double bay doors large enough to admit a whale carcass, and a wall of saws and knives worthy of a horror movie. It was the largest facility of its kind in the world, and a far cry from her makeshift lab in the laundry room on Burwood Road. She loved working there. Every day brought something new in a flow of specimens that never stopped. The latest arrival: a collection of passerines from Kandahar. The birds had been roughed out in the field, most of the feathers and flesh removed. Jess's assistant, Maisy, was bent over the box of little bundles, carefully tied so none of the tiny bones would be lost. Excerpted from Horse: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Trade Reviews
Library Journal Review
The latest historical novel from Brooks (The Secret Chord) centers around horse racing in the Civil War era. The first part of the story is set in the present, where a Nigerian American art historian and a scientist working at the Smithsonian are drawn together by a horse's skeleton and a painting discovered in the trash. Then the narrative goes back in time to the 1800s, where an enslaved groom named Jarret works as a trainer of race horses. The tension builds slowly, then ends with a surprising and memorable tragedy. The characters are believable and appealing; listeners will see how racism impacts the lives of people in different ways and in different time periods. The five separate voice actors--Graham Halstead, Lisa Flanagan, James Fouhey, Michael Obiora, and Katherine Cittrell--are skilled at using accents and dialect to add life and excitement to the narrative. VERDICT This title will appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood and Kathleen Kent and would be a good for any library looking to add to its representation of the African American experience.--Susan Cox
Publishers Weekly Review
Pulitzer winner Brooks returns after The Secret Chord with a fascinating saga based on the true story of a famous 19th-century racehorse. In 2019, Theo Northam, a Black graduate student in Washington, D.C., finds a discarded equestrian painting that he decides to research for a Smithsonian magazine article. Meanwhile, Jess, a bone specialist at the Smithsonian, gets a call about an old horse skeleton that's been stored in the museum's attic. Jess and Theo end up meeting, but first Brooks takes the story to 1850s Lexington, Ky., where Jarret Lewis, an enslaved boy, is the groom for a promising colt that his father, Harry, a freedman, has trained. But then the horse, Lexington, is sold and the new buyer sends him along with Jarret to a Mississippi plantation with ruinous consequences. In 1853, Lexington and Jarret end up in New Orleans, where the horse thrills the racing world, and Jarret hopes to buy his freedom, while back in contemporary D.C., a romance blossoms between Jess and Theo. While Brooks's multiple narratives and strong character development captivate, and she soars with the story of Jarret, a late plot twist in the D.C. thread dampens the ending a bit. Despite a bit of flagging in the home stretch, this wins by a nose. Agent: Kristine Dahl, ICM. (June)
Booklist Review
With exceptional characterizations, Pulitzer Prize--winner Brooks (The Secret Chord, 2015) tells an emotionally impactful tale centering on the life and legacy of Lexington, a bay colt who became a racing champion in mid-nineteenth-century America. Present at the horse's birth is Jarret, an enslaved groom on Dr. Elisha Warfield's vast Kentucky farm, and man and horse develop an enduring bond. Jarret's nuanced conversations with traveling equestrian artist Thomas Scott are mutually enlightening. Through Jarret and his father, a free Black man and expert horse trainer, readers encounter a wide range of racial injustices. This perennially and tragically relevant theme extends into the twenty-first century via Theo, a Nigerian American PhD art student. His path intersects with Jess, an Australian-born scientist at the Smithsonian, after Theo saves an old equestrian portrait discarded by his neighbor. Among the most structurally complex of all Brooks' acclaimed literary historical novels, the narrative adroitly interlaces multiple eras and perspectives, including that of 1950s New York gallery owner Martha Jackson, who appears midway through. From rural Kentucky to multicultural New Orleans, Brooks' settings are pitch-perfect, and the story brings to life the important roles fillled by Black horsemen in America's past. Brooks also showcases the magnificent beauty and competitive spirit of Lexington himself.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling and highly regarded Brooks is always a draw, but this many-faceted story of a champion racehorse, art, and hidden Black history will attract even greater interest.
Kirkus Review
A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse's portrait. In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor's trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian's "expert in skulls and bones," who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he's trying to steal it--before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, "the greatest racing stallion in American turf history," nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret's and Theo's points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess' clumsy apology--"I was traumatized by my appalling behavior"--and thinks, "Typical….He'd been accused, yet she was traumatized." Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as "lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence." The 21st-century chapters' shocking denouement drives home Brooks' point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret. Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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