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Horse by Geraldine Brooks Book Club Questions & Guide

If your book club is looking for a novel that lends itself to a great discussion, look no further than Horse by Geraldine Brooks. This award-winning historical fiction novel blends historical figures and fictional characters into a page-turning story about a racehorse named Lexington/Darley, his enslaved caretaker/trainer Jarret, and the lives they touched over a span of 150 years.

If you haven’t yet read the book, skip down to the Summary & Review sections at the bottom to read a synopsis of Horse. We’ve also included our review, as well as reviews from our readers, to help you decide if it’s right for your book club. Other sections of this post do contain spoilers, as it is intended for those who have already finished reading the book.

hand holding the book Horse by Geraldine Brooks in front of a painting by Kehinde WIley.

Book Club Discussion Guide – Online & Printable Versions

Online Version

The post below includes everything you need to host or participate in a successful book club for Horse. From a character list and discussion questions to food and cocktail ideas, we’ll help you host a wonderful gathering.

Printable Version

We also have an optional printable Horse Book Club Kit to take your meeting to the next level. The fully customized version of the book club guide is designed for printing and includes the following pages:

  • A Character List
  • Book Club Discussion Questions
  • Quotes from the Book
  • Icebreaker Ideas & Games Themed to the Book (with printable game cards)
  • Printable Bookmarks for All Your Members 
  • 2 Pages of Bonus Contextual Information about artists Thomas Scott & Kehinde Wiley
  • Themed Food & Drink Menu Ideas
  • Various Book Covers from Around the World
  • Custom Designed Journal Page to Record Book Club Meeting Details
  • Themed Notes Page
  • A List of Additional Book Club Resources

Etsy purchases do help The Book Girls to keep doing what we do. However, there is no pressure to purchase; you’re always welcome to use any of the resources below for free!

Book Club Questions for Horse by Geraldine Brooks

In addition to the Horse discussion questions below, we have a resource of 50 book club questions that work for any book. That post also provides tips for creating your own book club questions. 

Read through the questions before your meeting and select your favorites so you can prioritize them. Most clubs won’t have time for every question, so start with those that you are most excited to discuss.

  1. In the early chapters of the book, we’re introduced to several different lead characters. Who were you initially most interested in? Did that evolve throughout the book?
  2. When Jarret briefly daydreams about riding off on Darley the first time Scott visits the farm, he wonders how far away “not that far” is. Discuss how the lack of education (geography in this case) impacted enslaved people. Do you think this is still a factor within any people groups today?
  3. Has anyone visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where the portrait of Lexington is on display? Or did anyone add these museums to their bucket list after reading the novel?
  4. Jarret learned a lot about life during his time at Fatherland in Natchez, Mississippi. Discuss what stood out to you the most from this period in his life. (Cues if needed: He experienced his first time working the fields and being whipped, and gained empathy and renewed gratitude toward his father. This is also where he began to learn to read).
  5. Did the book change any of your views about horse racing?
  6. When Lexington won his second appearance at Metairie, Ten Broeck gave Jarret three options: $50, a month off with the freedom to go visit other places, or a tutor for daily schooling. Which would you choose and why?
  7. After Ten Broeck moved to England, he had a good run before dying penniless and alone. How do you think his life would have turned out differently if he had kept Lexington and employed Jarret as a freedman?
  8. 
Do you consider Ten Broeck a hero or a villain?
  9. Did you agree with Jarret’s choice to stay in Kentucky rather than join the Union Army when Scott offered the chance for him to become free through service?
  10. Theo is skeptical of White artists taking on Black subjects in art. Do you think this was a way for the author to acknowledge how she may have felt writing Black characters as a White author?
  11. How will reading Horse change your experience when visiting natural history and art museums in the future?
  12. Throughout the book, the author provides both positive and negative surprises for the characters and us as readers. Discuss a time you prepared for the worse and things weren’t as bad as you expected. On the flip side, share a time you were caught off guard.
  13. Theo introduces Jess to the remarkably talented painter Kehinde Wiley, who paints contemporary Black men in compositions of the old masters. What do you think Jarret would feel seeing someone who looked like him featured prominently by Wiley and other artists in museums around the world today?
  14. Jarret was consistently aware that perceptions mattered more than reality when Mary Barr Clay tried to be alone with him. Contrast this to Theo’s experiences in the 2019 timeline.
  15. We all know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but let’s be honest – many of us do. What was your first impression of this book based on the cover? Take a look at the alternate covers from different countries and/or languages (on the next page) and discuss how your first impression might have been different and which cover you think best represents the book.

List of Characters in Horse by Geraldine Brooks

These are the key characters that bring Horse to life. Keep this list handy as a quick reference during your discussions—it’ll help keep track of who’s who as you delve into conversations. Our printable guide includes a two-page character list if you find it easier to have a printed reference.

The characters marked with an asterisk (*) are real historical figures.

2019 Timeline Characters

  • THEO – studying for his PhD in art history; freelance writer for Smithsonian magazine; lives in Georgetown student housing; educated abroad in Canberra and London
  • CLANCY – Theo’s dog
  • JESS – grew up in Sydney and trained as a vet; Osteology Prep Lab Manager at the Museum Support Center for Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Maryland
  • CATHERINE – Dr. from Kentucky’s Museum of the Horse who came to see Lexington
  • JEREMY – conservator who worked on Theo’s painting at the Smithsonian
  • DANIEL – Theo’s friend from Yale

1950s Timeline Characters

  • *MARTHA JACKSON – art dealer and gallery owner
  • *JACKSON POLLOCK – abstract expressionist painter
  • *LEE KANSER – abstract expressionist painter; Jackson Pollock’s wife
  • ANNIE – Martha’s housekeeper; painting has been in her family for generations
  • CYRENA – Martha’s mother who died falling off of a horse
  • ROYAL ECLIPSE – Cyrena’s horse; in Lexington’s bloodline (Lexington was his great grandsire)

1850s – 1875 Timeline Characters

  • DR. WARFIELD – retired obstetrician; horse breeder in his 70s
  • JARRET LEWIS – Black man; slave in Warfield’s horse barn
  • *HARRY LEWIS – Jarret’s father who works as a free man horse trainer; tortured in youth as a Jockey (to keep him small enough); saving money to buy his son’s freedom
  • BETH – Harry’s wife
  • BOSTON – breeding horse; died after creating final foal that came to be named Lexington
  • *DARLEY / LEXINGTON – Alice & Boston’s foal; given to Harry, but purchased by Ten Broeck’s because a Black man couldn’t own a racehorse; Ten Broeck renamed the horse Lexington; same horse that Theo and Jess are studying
  • *MARY BARR CLAY – 11 years old when she snuck into the barn to see Alice foal; advised Jarret to flee and then chased him down with her father to try to protect him
  • *CASH (CASSIUS) CLAY – Mary’s father; ran an anti-slavery newspaper; freed all his slaves; helped his daughter try to save Jarret after he flees
  • *MARY JANE CLAY – Cash’s wife
  • HENRY CLAY – Cash’s father; famous horse breeder
  • *THOMAS SCOTT – studied medicine before moving to Kentucky; became a painter and writer knowledgeable in equines; paints Lexington and gifts one of the paintings to Jarret
  • *EDWARD TROYE – 19th-century horse painter who taught Thomas Scott
  • *RICHARD TEN BROECK – Northerner; new owner of Jarret and Darley; employs slaves, but typically does not own them; says he only owns Jarret to protect him and will allow him to buy his own freedom in the future; takes Jarret and Darley to Natchez
  • *JOHN PRYOR – Ten Broeck’s horse trainer at Fatherland
  • GEM – blacksmith at Fatherland (Ten Broeck’s plantation)
  • UNCLE JACK – set up a bible study to teach Black people to read
  • EVELINE – Jack’s wife
  • JULIAN – painter; Thomas Scott’s companion
  • *ROBERT AITCHESON ALEXANDER – livestock breeder at Woodburn Stock Farm where Ten Broeck sells Jarret; promotes Jarret to clerical tasks when he learns he can read
  • NAPOLEON – Quebecois horse worker at Woodburn Stock Farm
  • MAY – Jarret’s “wife” (not legally); enslaved to Alexander; left Jarret to go with Robert after he returned from the war; Jarret gifted her one of Scott’s paintings of Lexington
  • ROBERT HAWTHORNE – Father of May’s son; escaped and joined the war until he was injured; came back to Woodburn Stock Farm to ask May and his son to follow him to Ohio
  • *WILLIAM QUANTRILL – led massacres for the South; raided Alexander’s farm, and his men stole Jarret’s painting
  • LUCINDA – Jarret’s wife in Canada
  • *COLONEL SANDERS DEWEESE BRUCE – Union Civil War colonel and expert on horse breeding; Jarret meets with him after Lexington’s death to view a painting of Lexington

We hope this character list is a helpful reference as you prepare to discuss the book.

Horse Book Club Food Ideas

This novel spans both time and location, so there are many great options for food themes. Author Geraldine Brooks suggests a seafood gumbo like Jarret is served when he reaches Ten Broeck’s townhouse in New Orleans. Alternatively, you can serve a meal inspired by the Italian food Jess prepares in the book.

Appetizers

When Catherine is in town and visits Jess for dinner, Jess makes pork chops seasoned with garlic and olive oil, along with balsamic vinegar on a salad. Her ingredients are perfect to inspire a delicious bruschetta appetizer that will pair well with the pasta in the main course.

Main Course Options

With heirloom tomatoes she picked up at an Eastern Market, Jess made a puttanesca sauce. This traditional Southern Italian pasta sauce has a chunky tomato base with garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers.

This puttanesca sauce recipe from foodandwine.com can be prepped in just 10 minutes, and it’s an easy dish to scale for a small or large group. Serve it over spaghetti or the pasta of your choice. Slice a baguette to soak up all the extra sauce, just like Jess and Theo.

Puttanesca sauce photo

Dessert

Pie is mentioned several times in the book, and we can think of no better pie for a Horse book club meeting than a Derby Pie!

This chocolate and walnut pie is a Kentucky tradition that dates back to 1954. Even if you aren’t a baker, this pie is simple and delicious! Follow this traditional recipe from Southern Living, or have one delivered directly to your door from Kern’s Kitchen, the home of the original Derby Pie.

Horse Book Club Beverage Ideas

Wine

Jess and Theo enjoyed a Cabernet Sauvignon paired with their Italian meal. A bottle from 14 Hands Vineyard, with a horse on the label, makes a perfect choice. If your group prefers white wines, 14 Hands also produces a Chardonnay.

Horse book with three bottles of 14 hands wine

Cocktail

We’d be remiss not to recommend some Kentucky bourbon for your Horse book club discussion, but we know that not everyone enjoys it neat or on the rocks. Instead, we recommend serving Mint Juleps – the bourbon cocktail that is a staple of the Kentucky Derby.

Non-Alcoholic Options

For a non-alcoholic option that delivers the same taste of Kentucky, you can make a mocktail version of a Julep using ginger ale in place of the bourbon. Another refreshing option is a fresh mint iced tea.

Horse Book Club Decor Ideas

If you love doing a little decorating to match the theme of the book, you’re in luck!

This kit comes with a tablecloth, garland, and balloons featuring horses, and you can even get a coordinating set of plates and napkins.

If you’d like to provide an inexpensive party favor, pick up these cute lucky horseshoes.

If the weather allows, you could even make time for a fun game of horseshoes outside.

Quotes from Horse by Geraldine Brooks

The following are some of the best quotes from Horse. All would make great talking points as part of a book club discussion. Be sure to bring any quotes you highlighted along the way as well.

Bookmark from Horse by Geraldine Brooks

“He leaned into Darley’s flank and felt the horse respond with gentle acceptance. Only horses were honest, in the end.”

“It wasn’t a good idea to speak without putting a deal of thought into it. Words could be snares. Less of them you laid out there, less likely they could trap you up.”

“Well, they say trauma etches the neurons, and I was traumatized by my appalling behavior.” Typical, Theo thought. He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.”

“He came to believe that horses lived with a world of fear, and when you grasped that, you had a clear idea how to be with them.”

“Perhaps he was like a horse rescued from a barn on fire, who runs back into his burning stall simply because the place is familiar.”

“You have to know that bigots are unwittingly handing you an edge. By thinking you’re lesser than they are, they underestimate you. Lean on that. Learn to use it, and you’ll get the upper hand.”

“At first, he was kindly disposed to these men, young as they were, skinny, sometimes shoeless rural boys, most from farms too poor to afford slaves. It had seemed to him an evil fate, a geographical accident, that had forced them to take up arms in what was, to him, a war to secure the rich man’s wealth. Beyond what was strictly required for their care, he would talk to them, to better know their minds. But after a time, he had stopped seeking such dialogue. They were, all of them, lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true. Their mad conception of Mr. Lincoln as some kind of cloven-hoofed devil’s scion, their complete disregard—denial—of the humanity of the enslaved, their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail—all of it was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.”

“You express surprise that I see my future in Canada. Let me tell you: I saw it the day I first crossed the border. I could vote there, you see, when I was still counted three-fifths of a man here.”

“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. Theo let the resentment rise inside him.”

“Want to be free? Course I do. But a soldier ain’t free.”

“Jess loved the interior architecture of living things. Ribs, the protective embrace of them, how they hold delicate organs in a lifelong hug. Eye sockets: no artisan had ever made a more elegant container for a precious thing.”

“That is the world as it is. If you do not like it, join me in attempting to change it.”

Geraldine Brooks Biography

Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, attending Bethlehem College Ashfield and the University of Sydney. She worked as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a feature writer with a special interest in environmental issues.

She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March. Her novels People of the BookCaleb’s Crossing and The Secret Chord all were New York Times Bestsellers. Her first novel, Year of Wonders is an an international bestseller, translated into more than 25 languages and currently optioned for a limited series by Olivia Coleman’s production company. She is also the author of the nonfiction works Nine Parts of DesireForeign Correspondence and The Idea of Home.

Brooks married fellow journalist and author Tony Horwitz in 1984, and they were together until his sudden death in 2019.  They have two sons, Nathaniel and Bizu, She now lives with a dog named Bear and a mare named Valentine by an old mill pond on Martha’s Vineyard and spends as much time as she can in Australia.  In 2016, she was named an Officer in the Order of Australia.

Author photo of Geraldine Brooks in white shirt standing in front of a Horse

Bio from https://geraldinebrooks.com/geraldine-brooks/

FAQs

Can I get a printable version of the book club guide?

Yes! We have a printable version in our shop that comes with bonus goodies, like a cute printable bookmark, which contains a quote from the book.

Promo graphic for the Horse by Geraldine Brooks Book Club Guide

Is there a Horse audiobook?

Yes! The audiobook of Horse is well done with a cast of narrators: James FouheyLisa FlanaganGraham HalsteadKatherine LittrellMichael Obiora.

Audible listeners rate the audiobook performance 4.8 out of 5 stars. Of course, as with all audiobooks, some people enjoy the narration, and others don’t. We always recommend listening to a sample of the audiobook before committing to reading in this format.

Is there a Horse movie?

While there isn’t a movie version of the novel Horse yet, we believe it could make an excellent feature film. Sony’s 3000 Pictures studio acquired the film rights in 2022. The same studio produced Where the Crawdads Sing, so we hope to see Lexington on the big screen one day.

What are some other books like Horse?

Reading Horse left us wanting to read more books that dive into the worlds of horse racing and better to educate ourselves about the lives of slaves and freedmen.

Three books horizontal, Seabiscuit, Giver of Stars, and The House is on Fire, representing books for fans of Horse

Books About Horses and Horse Racing

If you are eager to read more about horses and horse racing, we suggest Laura Hillenbrand’s 1999 award-winning nonfiction, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and William Nack’s 1988 non-fiction (with an updated afterword), Secretariat. Both of these extraordinary horses have also been the subject of movies that are available for streaming (Seabiscuit movie / Secretariat movie).

For those wanting to dig deeper into the life of Lexington, the legendary racehorse at the center of Horse, we suggest picking up the 2023 nonfiction Lexington: The Extraordinary Life and Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse by Kim Wickens.

If you loved the Kentucky setting of Horse, we also recommend that you pick up either The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson or The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. While the stories are quite different, both of these novels center around the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky.

More About the Lives of Slaves and Freedmen

While there are countless books we could recommend on this topic, we’ve narrowed this list to just a few highly-rated reads that have recently made an impact on us and our readers.

One of Melissa’s favorite books of 2023 was The House is On Fire by Rachel Beanland. Based on the true story of a fire in Richmond, Virginia’s theater in 1811, this compelling novel moves from tragedy to redemption as the lives of four people instantly become forever intertwined. Melissa raced to pick up this book after the author had a speaking engagement in Florida canceled because the book addresses slavery.

The House is On Fire is a heart-wrenching look into not only a real disaster from history but of what it was like to live in slavery despite being a short train ride away from freedom. Some owners were horrific, while others were kind, but the kindness didn’t take away the pain of not being free.

Master Slave Husband Wife by Ilyon Woo is a nonfiction biography of Ellen and William Craft, who bravely chased life, liberty, and justice by making a daring escape from slavery. Many of our readers selected this title for one of our reading challenge prompts, and across the board, they all said they would recommend this book to a friend.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray is a historical fiction novel based on the extraordinary life of Belle da Costa Greene. While this novel includes many fascinating art history details (another connection to Horse), we’ve added it to this list specifically because we found the story of Belle’s father to be so eye-opening. During the Reconstruction Era, he became the first Black graduate of Harvard College and the first African American to earn a law degree from the newly integrated University of South Carolina. Just a few years later, USC went back to being a white-only institution. Greener would spend much of his career fighting against injustice after the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1866 just 17 years later, in 1883.

We are also looking forward to Erik Larson’s newest book, The Demon of Unrest, which is scheduled for publication on April 30, 2024, and covers the five-month period between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the start of the Civil War in April 1861.

Are there other books by Geraldine Brooks?

Geraldine Brooks published her first novel, Year of Wonders, in 2001, and has since written numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006 for her novel, March. Other popular titles by Brooks include People of the Book (2008) and Caleb’s Crossing (2011).

Other books by Geraldine Brooks

Horse Book Summary

Through the true story of a racehorse named Lexington, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks manages to weave a tale of spirit and injustice over 150 years of American history.

The book has three timelines. In 1850, you’ll meet an enslaved horse groomer, Jarret, in Kentucky, who has a special bond with Lexington. There is also a young artist who paints images of the horse. When the Civil War erupts, the artist fights for the union and runs into the young groom and stallion again far from the track.

In 1954, a gallery owner on Martha’s Vineyard takes a special interest in a 19th-century equestrian old painting, even though the artist and provenance are unknown.

In 2019, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia and a Nigerian-American art historian unexpectedly connect through a common interest in the painting as they look for clues to the origin.

Horse Review

If you found this post searching for potential book club picks, we thought it would be helpful to share why we think it’s an ideal selection for discussion.

To begin with, this story goes well beyond horse racing and art! Angela was hooked from the very first chapter. She found herself drawn in so deeply that she just kept turning pages with no regard for what time it was or what other tasks were on her to-do list.

The narrative jumps back and forth between the three timelines, and there are lots of characters to keep track of. However, the story is revealed, bit by bit, in such a brilliant way that it feels effortless. This incredibly well-researched historical fiction novel will stick with you long after you reach the final page.

Horse was a five-star read for both Angela & Melissa. It was also extremely popular with our readers, who voted it one of their favorite reads of the year. As of February 2024, Horse has an average rating of 4.31 on Goodreads, with nearly 115,000 readers. 

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2
100% Would Recommend to a Friend

In Our Readers’ Words…
“The premise of this book seemed so interesting with people, both real and fictional, tied to one of the world’s greatest racing horses, Lexington.” -Joy H.

“Learning more about horse racing and the lives of enslaved people that even though “free” had no rights of ownership or of racing a horse.” -Anita F.

We hope you found our book club guide helpful!

As a reminder, you can get the guide in a print-friendly format for your book club meeting in our Etsy shop! Each purchase helps us continue providing great book lists and book resources here.

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