Review posted March 20, 2023.
Penguin Audio, 2022. 14 hours, 6 minutes.
Review written March 18, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
A big thank you to my friend Keith, who persistently recommended this book to me. When he first recommended it, I was reading for the Cybils and didn't get to it. Then at the start of the year when he said it was the best book he'd read in 2022, I put the audiobook on hold again, and this time when it came in a couple months later, I made a point of listening, and was glad I did.
This book is a rich tapestry. It's set in 2019 and also in the 1850s. The two viewpoint characters in 2019 are working behind the scenes at the Smithsonian. One of those is an African American grad student writing an article for Smithsonian magazine on restoring a painting he found when his neighbor put it out in the trash. And his dissertation is about the depiction of African Americans in 19th century American equestrian art. Those two things come together.
And along the way he meets Jess, who works behind the scenes at the Smithsonian with animal skeletons. A British researcher has come to examine a particular skeleton, and Jess has to do some research to find it. The label just says "Horse," but records show it's the skeleton of Lexington, one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time.
This book is the story of Lexington. The main viewpoint character from the past is Jarret, an enslaved boy who was present when Lexington was foaled. He manages to stay with Lexington for the horse's whole life, and this book tells that story, mixed in with the story of restoring the painting and the skeleton in 2019.
The story is wonderfully told. And this audio production, using different readers for all the different viewpoint characters, makes it all the more immersive.
I was very surprised at the end to learn that Lexington was a real horse with an actual stellar career as a racer and as a sire. I had assumed she'd have to make up a fictional horse. His skeleton actually did spend time in the Smithsonian labeled as "Horse." Most of the historical characters were real people, but the author brought them to life through the eyes of Jarret, the African American groom who loved him and knew him best. Jarret's life is the fictional part, though with enough plausibility, you can tell yourself this is what really happened.
As she says in the afterword, because African Americans were so crucial to American racing in the nineteenth century, her story of a racehorse had to become a story of race. I have to say that I completely hated some things that happened toward the end of the book, though I see why she put them in. But I sure would have liked the story to go a different way. However, even with that reservation, this was an amazing book that I won't forget any time soon.