The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan ✎✎✎

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Horse Racing Neck and Neck, public domain

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 c-e-morganthrowback: 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.
equestrienneAt 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.

derbyMENU

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:

Mint Juleps

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:

INGREDIENTS

    • 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

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large bowl, blend the butter, sugar, flour and salt.
  2. Add the eggs, and beat well with a rotary beater or mixer on low –.
  3. Stir in the corn and milk (if using frozen corn, chop it up a little first to release the milky juices).
  4. Pour the ingredients into a buttered flat 10×6″ casserole and bake at 325* for 45 minutes, stirring once halfway through the baking period.
  5. When done, the pudding will be golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle will come out clean.
  6. 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.

Steamed asparagus

“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/

MUSIC

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

MOVIE CASTING

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

Happy Reading!

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Breaking from the Post

There’s a snow storm raging in Roanoke, VA.  It is as warm in Bloomington, IN as it is in Hilton Head; only it’s not pouring rain in Bloomington.  Despite the April calendar date, March lilies are in bloom and tulips have yet to appear.  In Daytona Beach, it’s cloudy and rainy and undoubtedly hoards of high school seniors are drowning their tanless sorrows in beer bongs.

But in Central Kentucky, a spring tradition will begin tomorrow that cannot be stopped by wind, rain, sleet or hail.  Keeneland, the most beautiful and historic thoroughbred race course in the nation, opens tomorrow.  Weather prognosticators (aka The Wise Men from the East) are predicting a beautiful spring day.  But even if there is snow, Keeneland will open.  The sleek long muscles of the thoroughbreds will twitch at the trumpeter’s call to the post.  The high-brows will swagger into the club house in Spring’s newest fashions.  The fraternity and sorority kids will stumble into the gates of the grandstand alongside the working men and women, the everyday sportsman, the bookies and the occasional owner or trainer not willing to put on a tie for the day.  The green-coated Keeneland employees will polish their smiles.  The tote board will light and the bell will sound.  The horses will break from the post, thundering past the screaming crowd, betting tickets clutched tightly in their fists for luck.  And down the stretch they will come.

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And officially, weather or no, in Central Kentucky, Spring will have arrived.

There are some wonderful books about thoroughbreds and racing.  My two favorites are Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand and Wild Ride, by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach.  People are familiar with Seabiscuit because of the movie.  Wild Ride is about the legendary Calumet farm, and the gorgeous, glorious and tragic story of Alydar, the horse who finished second to Affirmed in all three of the Triple Crown races, but outshone him by the million in the breeding shed.

A song list for Keeneland’s opening day:

Fugue for TInhorns (I Got the Horse Right Here), from Guys and Dolls

Run for the Roses, Dan Fogelberg

Up on Cripple Creek, The Band

Bottle of Smoke, The Pogues

Beer for My Horses, Tobey Keith & Willie Nelson

If I Had a Horse, Lyle Lovett

And a couple for sentimental reasons that are sort of about horses and sort of about love.  But maybe that’s all the same thing anyway.

Wild Horses, The Rolling Stones

A Horse in the Country, The Cowboy Junkies

The perfect menu for Keeneland opening day:

Steamed asparagus, country ham on beaten biscuits, corn pudding and strawberries.

Serve with your choice of champagne or bourbon and branch water.

Here’s the Shakertown Corn Pudding Recipe:

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

3 eggs, slightly beaten

2 cups frozen corn

1 3/4 cup milk

Blend butter, sugar, flour and salt in a large bowl.

Add eggs and beat with rotary mixer on low.  Add corn, chopping it a little to release the milky juice.

Pour into a flat, 10 x 6″ casserole and bake at 325 for 45 minutes, stirring once, halfway through the baking.

When done, the pudding will be golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle will come out cleanly.

(Another menu with recipes for Mint Juleps and Derby Pie: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-first-saturday-in-may/)

Happy Reading! (Or Racing)