It was a chance encounter with a high-level Smithsonian Institution official at a luncheon held in Massachusetts that led the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks to the 147-year old skeleton of America’s greatest stud sire and champion thoroughbred.
The life of that distinguished stallion, named Lexington in homage to his city of birth, provides both the imagined and true subject of Brooks’ newest historical novel, fittingly titled Horse.
Horse transports readers to the racially fraught South, where Brooks re-imagines real-life 19th-century characters of the artist Thomas Scott, horse owner Richard Ten Broeck and others, alongside mid-20th-century New York City art dealer Martha Jackson. Most compellingly, Brooks crafts an exceptionally sensitive portrayal of an enslaved groom and his special bond with Lexington.
Brooks also wanted to bring the story into our own time, and she found another true-life way in. The horses’ bones had been stored, but mostly forgotten, in the attic of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In 2010, the skeleton was restored and sent to the a museum in KY.
Brooks created fictional characters around these facts, including a Georgetown University Black art historian, whose story weaves into today’s racial tensions and violence.
It’s a braided narrative, because she wanted to write about the science around the skeleton of the horse at the Smithsonian because it’s fascinating. And it’s such an extraordinary place to go behind the scenes and see the scientific research that’s going on there.
So she brings the story of race forward, since it’s clearly not over.
This horse is not just about a racehorse, it’s also about race.
The real-life Lexington won his last race in 1855 and died 20 years later. His story and the lives of those around him are re-imagined in the novel.