My mom asked me what book she should recommend for her book club to read. I suggested The Sport of Kings, by Kentucky author C.E. Morgan. I hadn’t read The Sport of Kings, but I like to support local authors, I liked Morgan’s first novel All the Living and I had heard good things about The Sport of Kings. Two weeks later, the founder of my mother’s book club called and asked me to present the book for them.
I soon found myself studying this 500+ novel for themes, plot, structure, style, literary allusions . . . in short, I felt like I was back in my undergrad literary seminar and my grade was just as important! I didn’t want to let down my mom or the women in her group with a presentation on The Sport of Kings.
In the end, the women were lovely, appreciative, and I ended up actually quite enjoying the application of my college student skills.
In this age of twitter, Facebook, goodreads, tumbler, ad nauseum, C.E. Morgan is a throwback: she’s an author who allows her writing to speak for itself, preferring to keep an exceedingly low profile. If she has a website, I can’t find it. In one of her rare interviews, she does admit to graduating from Berea College in Kentucky and Harvard Divinity School. Her novels are filled with the tones, colors, sights, and sounds of rural Kentucky as well as theological meditations.
I’ve read many of the reviews of The Sport of Kings. The word “sweeping” is used quite a bit. “Generational.” “Epic.” It is all those things and more: long, complex, contrary, palaverous, disturbing, beautiful. My personal theory is that The Sport of Kings is Morgan’s attempt to define Kentucky first, its people second, and the thoroughbred industry third in all of their beautiful cruelty. To do this, she uses individual allegorical characters. Back-to-nature Pen. Salt-of-the-earth-farmer-Jamie. Narcissistic-land-owner-Henry.
At the heart of The Sport of Kings is horse farm owner Henry Forge and his daughter Henrietta. Henry is obsessed with breeding: the perfect horse and the perfect progeny and will go to any length to achieve his goals. Henry believes he’s achieved at least one of his goals with Hellsmouth, a fiery filly. But when a recently released ex-con, Allmon, arrives to work as a groom on Henry’s farm, complications (as they say) ensue.
Morgan’s style ranges from the scientific exploration of equine breeding, to bloated descriptions of natural phenomenon. At various points it takes her two pages to effectively cover one year in Henry Forge’s life and two pages to describe a sunset.
The corn spat him out. His face scraped by the gauntlet, he clutched handfuls of husk and stood hauling air with his hair startled away from his forehead. Here the old land is the old language: The remnants of the county fall away in declining slopes and swales from their property line. The neighbor’s tobacco plants extend as far as the boy can see, so that impossibly varying shades of green seem to comprise the known world, the undulating earth an expanse of green sea dotted only by black-ship tobacco barns, a green so penetrating, it promises a cool, fertile core a mile beneath his feet. In the distance, the fields incline again, slowly rippling upward, a grassed blanket shaken to an uncultivated sky. A line of trees traces the swells on that distant side, forming a dark fence between two farms. The farmhouse roofs are black as ink with their fronts obscured by evergreens, so the world is black and green and black and green without interruption, just filibustering earth. The boy knows the far side of that distant horizon is more of the bright billowing same, just as he knows they had once owned all of this land and more when they came through the Gap and staked a claim, and if they were not the first family, they were close. They were Kentuckians first and Virginians second and Christians third and the whole thing was sterling, his father said. The whole goddamn enterprise.
Truthfully, I found myself often bogged down in the vocabulary at times. But if you slog through these places, the plot holds.
Having now read the book, I do recommend The Sport of Kings but it is with reservation. Make sure your book club has set aside plenty of time to read. This is for book clubs that enjoy more challenging reads.
There may be food described in the novel, but I wasn’t scouring the pages of The Sport of
Kings for food references. This is a Kentucky novel, I am a Kentuckian, and I would fix traditional Kentucky food. So my menu would include:
Country Ham on Beaten Biscuits
Beer cheese with crackers and celery
Corn Pudding. This is my favorite recipe but there are many. It’s from ShakerTown at Pleasant Hill:
- 3 tablespoons butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 whole eggs, slightly beaten
- 2 cups frozen corn
- 1 3/4 cups milk
- In a large bowl, blend the butter, sugar, flour and salt.
- Add the eggs, and beat well with a rotary beater or mixer on low –.
- Stir in the corn and milk (if using frozen corn, chop it up a little first to release the milky juices).
- Pour the ingredients into a buttered flat 10×6″ casserole and bake at 325* for 45 minutes, stirring once halfway through the baking period.
- When done, the pudding will be golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle will come out clean.
- THIS MIXTURE CAN BE PREPARED AHEAD OF TIME AND KEPT IN THE REFRIGERATOR. STIR WELL, THEN POUR INTO A BAKING DISH AND BAKE AS INSTRUCTED.
“Kentucky pie” aka the pie named after the Run for the Roses which name has now been copyrighted.
Recipes for Mint Juleps and Kentucky pie here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-first-saturday-in-may/
Town & Country offered a Kentucky Derby playlist in 2014 that would work quite well for The Sport of Kings. You can find it here: http://www.townandcountrymag.com/the-scene/parties/a1923/kentucky-derby-party-music/
To their suggestions, I would add:
Run for the Roses, Dan Fogelberg
Blue Moon of Kentucky, Bill Monroe
Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley
Kentucky Woman, Neil Diamond (I hate it but . . .)
Paradise, John Prine
Henrietta — Kentucky Girl Jennifer Lawrence, as if the book was written with her in mind
Henry Forge — Matthew McConaughey
Allmon — Jessie Williams
John Henry Forge – Sam Shepard
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