Going into The Sport of Kings I wasn’t sure what to expect. Described as a story of “racism and justice,” the majority of the story confused me. The novel focuses on the generations of the Forge family – an old and powerful family in Kentucky.
We are first introduced to the family as young Henry Forge runs away from his father in a field, afraid of being punished for killing a bull. The scene solidifies what is to come throughout the novel – for young Henry, there is no running away from his father. There is no escape from his familial heritage, whether this is the inheritance that he is later bestowed with at his father’s demise, or the deplorable attitude towards black people that he has attained even at that young age. There is no escape from the fact that for powerful men like John Henry, everybody is essentially property. The black man that works for him is certainly property. But more than that, he views his wife as nothing more than an object, and his son as property to mould. As his son returns back home after running away, John Henry says to him, “Today I’m not whipping my son, just an animal. Because that’s how you’ve behaved.”
The women in The Sport of Kings face deep injustices. John Henry’s wife, Lavinia, is mute, and this seems to further solidify her as his property – rather than his wife. Her muteness is described as a contrast to her beauty, as a “gash across a masterwork” that is ruined by her face “contorting with agonized efforts to make herself known.” Her beauty lies in the stillness of her face. Her disability a gash. But it’s her attempts at expression, despite her disability, that seem to make people the most uncomfortable. I had to wonder if it was precisely because of her disability that John Henry decided to marry her, as it seemingly gives him even more power and authority in both his family and his marriage.
The woman that Henry Forge ultimately marries faces the injustice of being born in a society where she is only seen as second-nature to a man. She muses that
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. More and more, life looked an awful lot like a hoax perpetrated on women and designed to further men’s lives at the expense of their own.
But the novel often also seems to co-opt the struggles of black people in order to drive home a feminist message. When Lavinia, John Henry’s wife, enters into an affair with a black servant, he mysteriously disappears. Lavinia muses to her son:
What I’m talking about is the love that occurs between equals, love being something that can only occur between equals. I know you don’t think of that man as my equal. The truth is I didn’t either – he’s black and drinks too much. I can’t hear the way he talks, but I can just imagine how rough and rude it is. But what you may never understand, because you are not a woman, is that the first time he kissed me, he didn’t kiss me just with his mouth; he kissed me with his eyes. He looked into me. No one had ever done that before… then I was completely and totally ashamed… I was ashamed of the glaring inequality that existed between us. He knew something of which I was completely ignorant, and from that moment on, against every impediment, I strove to become worthy of him, to become his equal.
While a nice gesture, Lavinia’s ideas of the inequality that exists between her and Filip are idealistic at best. They are about Filip’s knowledge and experiences of the world, rather than the deeply ingrained inequality that Lavinia part and parcel of in their very own home. And while Lavinia suffered deeply for her affair with Fillip, she still held more power over the situation than him. But the message of it essentially boils down to Lavinia, and her struggles, rather than an examination of what has happened to Fillip.
When the story does ultimately circle back to Filip at the end of the novel, it comes in the shape of a joke. Maryleene, the cook who had been working at the Forges during Filip’s disappearance, returns to Henry Forge as an adult, and informs him that she will be bringing down the Forges by exposing what she knows of the family in her book. But when she learns that Henry Forge’s grandson is, in fact, black, she erupts into laughter. She cries, “a black baby! Henry Forge has a black grandbaby!” This seems to be some form of ultimate retribution for the Forges. That a family who have thrived off mistreating black people have been bestowed with a black child. But of course, there is even more injustice in this.
While an interesting exploration into the tyrannical reign of powerful, white men from generation to generation – and how dangerous attitudes become generational, bred rather than born – the Sport of Kings ultimately seemed to weave between stories and characters that I simply didn’t understand. The connections were difficult to put into place, when each chapter seems to take you into a different place altogether, skipping decades, and sometimes geographical locations. It’s a book that I found difficult to get through, and difficult to engage with.