Horse Book Club Questions and Discussion Guide

The story of a remarkable racing horse from Kentucky, named Lexington, connects people from the 1850’s to 2019 through science, art, and history. Lexington was raised and trained by a young enslaved man named Jarret, and this novel journeys from his story in the antebellum south; to Martha, a modern art collector in the 1950’s; and finally to Theo, an art history student, and Jess, a Smithsonian scientist in 2019.

Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winner and she uses all of her chops to deliver a rich story supported by meticulously researched history about the civil war era in the south, the lives of enslaved people, horse racing, art history, history museums, and modern racism.

This complex weaving of their stories is ripe with discussion topics, and you can use our Horse book club questions to start exploring the novel’s varied themes. Our Horse discussion guide contains everything your book club needs to get started, Horse book club questions, a synopsis, selected reviews, and recommendations for 3 related books for further reading.

Horse book club questions

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Synopsis for Horse

(We always chose to provide the publisher synopsis because we feel that it’s worthwhile to discuss whether the official book description actually squared with your experience of the book.)

Horse, Geraldine Brooks

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.

10 Horse Book Club Questions

  1. “Troye may have portrayed these men as individuals, but perhaps only in the same clinical way that he exactly documented the splendid musculature of the thoroughbred. It was impossible not to suspect some equivalence between the men and the horse: valued, no doubt, but living by the will of their enslaver, submitting to the whip. Obedience and docility: valued in a horse, valued in an enslaved human. Both should move only at the command of their owner. Loyalty, muscle, willingness—qualities for a horse, qualities for the enslaved. And while the horse had two names, the men had only one.”

    Did you see similarities and differences to how the horses and the slaves were viewed by the owners? What does this say about their value to those who owned them?
  1. “I don’t rightly know who was my great-grandfather, much less his father. How come you know that about a horse?”

    What do you think the impact is to a person when their lineage, their family history, is erased?
  1. “Just as a lump of coal, under pressure, could become a diamond bit, Theo had learned to turn his anger into something he could use.”

    Many characters have different reasons to be angry in this book. How do they use their anger? Who has the right to show it and who feels they need to suppress it?
  1. What do you think about the relationship between Jess and Theo? Do you think it would have worked out long term? 
  1. Did you know much about horse racing before reading this novel? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
  1. “Girl, he should have sped up, kept on running right to a well-lit road, and called some White folk to help her. He just didn’t know how he needed to be if he was going to live in this country.”

    What do you think about what happened to Theo at the end? What does it say about being Black in the U.S. or in other countries?
  1. How has racism and our notion of race in the U.S. changed from Jarret’s time to Theo’s time?
  1. How does art weave into the stories in the book? How does it reflect the times, attitudes, and heritage at the different stages of the novel?
  1. What do you think about Jarret and Lexington’s relationship? What do you think Jarret’s life would have been like without Lexington?
  1. Which character did you most connect to? Why?

Selected Reviews for Horse

(Use these selected Goodreads reviews to compare with your own experience of the book. Do you agree or disagree with the reviews?)

“It was fascinating to learn about horses and horse racing, the history of it, the role of black men in grooming and training. It was equally as fascinating to learn about the workings at the Smithsonian, about the art world, the reverence for equestrian art. Brooks skillfully meshes science and art and life. It’s so stunning how she weaves all these threads together to create a story that is at the same time a compelling story and a wonderful rendering of the times, the places, and sadly the societal injustices. It’s an epic story reinforcing Brooks’ place as a literary treasure.”

“Was a good story throughout mostly but then the author had to get preachy. I can only take so much beating over the head, before I lose interest.”

“…Jess and Theo are great characters. But Brooks throws them together in an utterly-devoid-of-chemistry romance that is meant to demonstrate the complexities of race in America. Instead, it becomes an eye-rolling exercise in hand-wringing woke politics. The plot twist in this narrative thread is heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative — a tremendous disappointment in an otherwise outstanding novel…”

“There is the sheer power of her storytelling, the way the narrative never flags; there is the profound depth of her characters — in this case, even the horses and dogs have personalities that are vivid and moving; and there is the precision of her research. HORSE is about many things: the stain and legacy of slavery in the U.S., the love we have for the animals around us; and the sacrifices we will make (or fail to make) to make the lives of those around us better. And at the center of it all, in a novel that spans 170 years? A horse named Lexington. You will love him and you will love Jarrett, the slave who trains him and transforms the animal into a legend. I was weeping at the end — in all the best ways.”

NEED BOOK CLUB IDEAS?

Use our guide to find dozens of book ideas for your group.

3 Books Like Horse

We got some some other discussion guides with books that reach back in time to our legacy of slavery. Here they are: The Invention of Wings discussion guide (Sue Monk Kidd), Let Us Descend (Jesmyn Ward), The Revisioners discussion guide (Margaret Wilkerton Sexton), and James (Percival Everett). And for more strong African American characters, try our The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store discussion guide.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

To explore more historical fiction about the lives of enslaved people in the south of the U.S., check out Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning, creative journey through the horrors encountered by enslaved people. Cora escapes a plantation in Georgia with fellow slave Cesar via the Underground Railroad.

But Whitehead’s speculative take on the Underground Railroad turns it into an an actual underground train, which takes Cora on a perilous journey through space and time, searching for her freedom.


Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Two half sisters are raised in vastly different circumstances in 18th century Ghana. One sister is married to a rich Englishman and lives in his coastal castle, while the other sister dwells in the dungeon before being sold in the slave trade and shipped to America. This slim volume manages to be a sweeping multi-gen epic following the sisters and their descendants as they live through slavery, revolution, war, and all the historical and modern day events that shape their lives.


Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand


If you’d like to read more about the horse racing world, Seabiscuit: An American Legend is a great choice. A classic underdog story, the book follows the true story of the rise of Seabiscuit and her motley crew of trainers and jockey in 1938 as they climb the ranks of the horse racing circuit to become American legends.

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