Lexington is the greatest racehorse no one has ever heard of, according to Pulitzer Prize winner and West Tisbury resident Geraldine Brooks. The Civil War-era horse captured the horseracing world’s attention by winning six of its first seven four-mile races but then had its career cut short by blindness.

Ms. Brooks’s new novel, Horse, which hit bookstores on June 14, revives Lexington’s story to create a portrait of love and racial injustice in the United States. The book is her first since the death of her husband Tony Horwitz, the award-winning writer who died suddenly in 2019. Losing Mr. Horwitz plus the onset of the pandemic and the turbulent times in the wake of the murder of George Floyd made finishing the book particularly difficult, Ms. Brooks said.

“This book was very hard to write, partly because of what happened in my own life and then it was a very distracting time with all the awful things that were going on in this country,” she said.

Jeanna Shepard

The narrative uses a painting of Lexington and Jarret, the fictionalized enslaved boy who reared the horse, as a linking point for three storylines. The preternatural relationship between the horse and Jarret forms the basis for exploring America on the brink of a civil war. The book also takes the reader into the world of contemporary art collector Martha Jackson and the burgeoning art scene of mid-20th century New York city. A fictional romance between Theo, a Nigerian American art historian who studies the painting, and Jess, an Australian scientist who studies Lexington’s skeleton in present-day Washington, DC, makes up the third storyline.

Ms. Brooks first learned about Lexington by eavesdropping, she said. She overheard an executive from the Smithsonian talking about how the museum had just shipped the horse’s skeleton to the International Museum of the Horse, where it would be the centerpiece of an exhibit. The author grew enchanted as she listened to the man recount the horse’s life.

“And as he talked about the horse and the story of the horse during the Civil War, my ears just radared in that direction,” she said. “By the time he got done I knew I had to learn more about the horse and that just led me in so many different directions.”

From there Ms. Brooks took a deep dive into the history of horseracing. She did not lack for material, she said, as people were obsessed with the sport during Lexington’s lifetime.

“It was as popular as the NFL would be if everybody played football because everybody had a horse. There were three newspapers just devoted to covering the races,” she said.

The rich material meant Lexington’s races and the pageantry surrounding them are written close to how they happened, Ms. Brooks said. While Jarret is fictionalized, Ms. Brooks had an abundance of material when writing the character since racehorses were often reared by slaves.

“The expertise behind this industry was almost entirely black,” she said. “I took details from the lives of other incredibly skilled horsemen who were instrumental in Lexington’s success.”

While researching and writing the book Ms. Brooks said she tapped into the bond she formed with her own horse, Valentine, to write about the relationship between Lexington and Jarret.

“I wanted to convey that kind of wonderful bond that can exist between people and animals. If you can cross the species divide, it really is a rewarding thing.”

Jeanna Shepard

Horse also gave Ms. Brooks a chance to explore her interest in art, she said. The book is filled with vivid descriptions of horse paintings and the techniques behind making them. The author’s artistic eye is also evident in her writing about the real-life character of Ms. Jackson, the art curator.

Ms. Brooks grew interested in Ms. Jackson after discovering that the painting of Lexington was the only traditional one she owned, she said. She wondered why that specific painting, a question that led her to a series of bizarre discoveries, many of which are in the book.

“The weirder the thing is in the book, the more likely it is to be true,” Ms. Brooks said.

Theo and Jess’s story is the only one which is purely fictional. Theo’s experiences allowed Ms. Brooks to show how race has pervaded American society through time, she said.

“As I’m writing this brutal history of enslavement…that was the period of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, so I thought there’s no way I can leave the story of race in the past and pretend that’s all over and done with.”

While the book explores relationships, racial dynamics and the bond humans share with animals, Ms. Brooks is hesitant to say what the book is ultimately about. That, she said, is up to the reader.

“What the book is about is between the reader and book. It’s really nothing to do with me because everybody will find something different in the book and that’s the magic of it.”

Geraldine Brooks will take part in the Martha’s Vineyard Author Series on Sunday, July 10, at the Chilmark Community Center, in conversation with Valerie Smith, president of Swarthmore College and a scholar of African American History. She will also be signing books at Behind the Bookstore in Edgartown on July 2 at 2 p.m., among other appearances on the Island this summer.