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John "Jack" Cunningham Jr
Turfmen and the Prodigal
Bitter, backslidden Christian Gideon Deshler spirals toward destruction, his demise hastened by evil Elvira Sturgis with whom he falls in love. She and her father, president of Alabama’s Spring Hill Jockey Club, brutalize their slaves. Two of Sturgis’s slaves, the jockey Ned and his girlfriend Becky, must escape to Canada so they can fulfill their dreams. But how? Alabama is far away from Canada, and it also doesn’t have an Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, a mystery surrounds the death of a champion Thoroughbred named Green Legs. Before he can solve it, Gideon must get delivered from Elvira’s spell and reconcile with Sam Quarles, with whom he’d fought a duel. Sam’s brother, Joe, feuds with Gideon’s friend, Owen Washburn, over Green Legs’s death. To keep his promise to his dying father, Joe vows to regain the status of his father’s horse farm in a big match race against Owen’s champion, Comet. Joe’s hope lies in an ornery Thoroughbred, Johnny Boy. If Johnny doesn’t win the Pride of Alabama Stakes, Joe vows to kill himself, for horseracing is his life and he’d have failed his father’s dying wish. Yet, Green Legs’s real killers and their accomplice have other plans.
Cunningham (Reflections of a Southern Boy) adds an inspirational religious element to a story of intense horse racing rivalry in pre-Civil War Alabama in his latest offering. In 1852 Alabama, Gideon Deshler rejects his Christian faith after his wife Harriet dies during childbirth along with his newborn son. Gideon seeks comfort in the bottle and directs his anger at his friend Luke who tries to curtail Gideon’s excessive drinking. Though Gideon almost kills Sam Quarles in a duel over an insult against Harriet, Sam becomes a changed man after attending Luke’s church. But Gideon continues his disdain for religion as he courts Elvira Sturgis, an avowed atheist, whose mistreatment of her slaves is almost unparalleled. When Gideon’s butler Thaddeus, a free man, dies saving him, Gideon has his own reformation back to religion. But Sam fears his brother Joe may commit suicide if he can’t restore the family name with his horse’s victory.

Cunningham laces the novel with a multitude of biblical references, beginning with the first name of the main protagonist, Gideon, and story elements that will appeal to readers of faith, such as the subplot regarding Gideon’s friends and neighbors trying to get him back into the fold of church. The intense thematic references to religion and good versus evil work well with the plotline, and Cunningham faces the era’s true darkness: while Elvira is portrayed as being very beautiful, her beauty includes a dark side, embodied by her brutality towards the family slaves.

The heart of the storyline, though, focuses on the intense horse racing competition between the turfmen and the landed gentry’s devotion to horse racing, especially as Gideon and Sam search for the killer of the Quarles’ former champion racehorse. Alive with vivid historical detail surrounding jockey club dinners and balls during the racing season, Cunningham’s novel also highlights the dangers inherent in the Underground Railroad for both slaves and abolitionists.

Takeaway: An inspirational historical novel of faith, freedom, and horse racing in old Alabama.

Comparable Titles: Geraldine Brooks’s Horse, Katherine C. Mooney’s Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: NA
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A