“‘Real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world. Now, you are neither nigger, nor woman, nor stupid. You are a young man born into a very long, distinguished line. That confers responsibility, so stay focused on your learning. And as far as your imagination is concerned, it should be relegated to secondary status. You’ll never have an original thought, never be great, never invent anything truly new, and this shouldn’t bother you one bit. There’s nothing new under the sun. You just need to know your place.'”
C.E. Morgan’s “The Sport of Kings” is a mammoth book which has been widely celebrated and has made its way to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Set in the heart of bluegrass Kentucky, an area I know well if not intimately, “The Sport of Kings” portrays an over-story about raising and racing Thoroughbreds in Paris, Kentucky, and a deeply developed under-story about inheritance, race, and ambition.
Henry Forge is southern royalty, the only son of a wealthy, long-established farming family. Forge’s father is cold and cruel, a man of exacting standards and unwavering prejudice; he is a strict originalist who doesn’t brook with rebellion of any type or degree. When young Henry expresses his dream of converting their family’s corn fields into a world-class Thoroughbred farm, his father’s rejection is swift and merciless.
“‘What looks like a horse farm is really a cheap attempt at dignity. All these pretty things before you amount to a heap of goddamn rhinestones. …Dignity can’t be purchased, Henry, least of all by these latecomers, these …these outsiders, who dress up their addictions in Sunday clothes and Derby hats. People call it a sport, but I’ll tell you this: this so-called sport is driven by compulsion, and weak men love nothing more than to abandon themselves to their compulsions.'”
This, spoken without irony by a man committed to generations of farming corn explicitly for the distilling of bourbon. Now, I love bourbon and admire horses, but I can plainly see the threads of addiction, excess, and vice in both well enough to appreciate the hypocrisy of this statement.
Not to be deterred, Henry’s laser-like focus only narrows until he has indeed created a renowned horse farm on his family’s land. The costs of this farm and, more, Henry’s ambition are both extraordinary and unsurprising.
His obsession with breeding and perfection are in many ways even more extreme than his vilified father’s. Henry treats his only child, Henrietta, as his for the shaping, a mere extension of his quest for perfection and legacy. As Henrietta grows up, she proves she has a head for the business. Co-managing their farm, Henrietta is at once coldly professional and wildly volatile. Her life on the farm is flawless and reserved, while her nights are spent trolling bars and engaging in dangerous, hollow sexual encounters with anyone she meets. That is, until the arrival of Allmon Shaughnessy, a black ex-con with a gift for horsemanship.
Morgan has much to say about misogyny and racism in “The Sport of Kings.” By setting her story within an industry – and it is an industry as much as a sport – like horse racing, Morgan has the perfect platform to expose generations-long bigotry and oppression. From the perspective of Henry and his like, people, and especially women and people of color, are pawns to be manipulated with minimal exposure lest one’s own supremacy be tainted. As Henry’s father opines early in Henry’s life, “‘[T]he core of femininity is a softness of resolve and mind; reason is not their strong suit.'” Yet Morgan expertly features women throughout her story who are anything but the delicate flower and font of maternal softness. Henry’s own mother, we learn, quietly rebels through a love affair with one of the farm hands, while his wife is completely uninterested in the roles of wife and mother.
“What she was coming to realize, but what no woman was allowed to utter aloud, was that there was no guarantee your child would be adequate compensation for the life you gave up to have it.”
In the third generation of Forge women, there is Henrietta, a woman with, according to her father, a “man’s mind” and with a focus and stoicism that can give her father’s a run for his money. Henrietta, though outwardly obedient, suffers no fools and sees right through the feints of men.
“Why did men always make this play for boldness? They came off like little children pretending to be grown. Why bother lying to a woman, who could read an expression before it formed, and know its source and its source’s source?”
Throughout the book, and particularly in the sections which trace Allmon’s family history and his childhood, Morgan has poignant insights into race and racism, as well. Both Henry and his father are white supremacists with an unshakeable sense of superiority.
“‘You see, Henry, for them the race problem is either a mental abstraction or a romance. For us, as perhaps you’re beginning to understand, it is a problem of practice and the everyday frustration of dealing with the colored appetite and intellect, which is entirely different from our own. It is quite easy to imagine the equality of all men when you sit on a high horse and don’t have to walk among them in the fields. Indeed, everyone appears the same height from that view. But demount the horse and it soon becomes apparent that there are not merely masters and slaves by happenstance, or overseers and laborers by happenstance, but that these divisions are inherent and unavoidable.'”
The parallels between horses and black people in the minds of Henry and his ancestors are clear. They are both extraordinary animals to be bred, broken, and controlled for the benefit of the white man. Fortunately for the breadth and soul of the novel, the reader is also presented with Allmon’s story, in which the systemic traps and trappings of racism are exposed, the impact of an unjust society impossible to ignore.
“They say there’s gonna be a black president someday. Maybe. Or maybe just black skin. Either way, you won’t ever get to vote in Kentucky. Won’t have a place to live, ’cause you won’t qualify for Section Eight housing to get your feet on the ground, won’t ever serve on a jury to keep a brother out of jail, won’t ever get a good job once you X the little felony box, can’t legally carry a gun to keep some crazy racist from killing you, and there was never any protection against the cops to begin with.”
“The Sport of Kings” is exquisitely crafted, though not without its challenges. Just like its star Thoroughbred, Hellsmouth, the novel is off to a slow, awkward start; the first 100 pages were well written but somehow tedious. By the second section of the book, however, the story picks up its pace and demands attention for the remaining 400+ pages. Though the story, especially at the beginning, tends to jump time and point of view from paragraph to paragraph with absolutely no signal – not even a space – only allowing the reader to catch up mid way through the next paragraph when an age or date alludes to the passage of time, this delivery, too, either smooths out or one becomes acclimated to it, so that soon the story just seems to flow effortlessly and naturally through time and space. All told, “The Sport of Kings” was extraordinary – worthy of its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list and well worth your time to read it.