War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is a novel of the horse at war, told in the first person from the perspective of the horse. Orginally published in 1982, the book has been republished as the theatrical version has become a major hit on the London stage. Though it is written for children and young adults, it is a moving and emotional story that will appeal to adults as well –especially those who have a special affinity for horses. It is a short book that can be read in an evening, but still conveys a full and satisfying story. Though the book takes place in the midst of World War I, its central theme is that the best of man can be evoked, even in difficult circumstances, by the simple goodness found in horses.
Morpurgo does an outstanding job drawing you into the world as seen by Joey, the part thoroughbred English farm horse who finds himself in the British cavalry in 1914. For the next four years Joey experiences all the roles of the war horse: cavalry mount, ambulance team, and artillery horse. He also meets and befriends people and horses on all sides of the war: Germans, British, and French. One of the secrets of War Horse, I believe, is that Joey is a believable horse. Morpurgo gives Joey just enough awareness and voice to allow him to tell his story, but not so much that he becomes a cartoon of the horse. Though the author gives voice to Joey’s thoughts, those thoughts are mostly about what is important to a horse: food, the weather, water, other horses, fear, excitement, and did I say food? Morpurgo captures the fact that Joey is aware of humans and their world, and can distinguish and values the difference between different people. Thus, the horse knows who is kind, who cares, and who does not –and responds to that treatment.
Michael Morpurgo is one of Great Britain’s top Children’s book authors. He has written over 100 books aimed at young readers. He is not a military historian but he relied on detailed interviews with World War I veterans to bring authenticity to Joey’s story. The major military themes in the book are accurate: the difficulty of cavalry attacking wire, the role of artillery teams, the functioning of the veterinary service, and the fate of horses at the end of the war. Morpurgo also demonstrates a solid understanding of horse care, training, and breeds. I was particularly impressed with his mention of the Hanovarians and Haflingers in the German artillery service.
War Horse is an enjoyable and touching afternoon’s read, expertly written for the adult and child. It conveys the essential goodness of animals and horses in particular, and demonstrates how they bring out the best in men even in the middle of the horror of war. Like all good war fiction, War Horse is essentially an anti-war story. It reminds me again of my own conclusion after writing my non-fiction work on war horses: the best thing man has ever done for horses is develop technology to the point that the horse no longer has to participate in war.
War horse was the runner up for the best Children’s book award in Great Britain, the Whitbread Award, and has been turned into a hugely successful play in the London theater. It is scheduled to begin playing in New York in 2011. I highly recommend the book and the play –though the latter is only by reputation.
The above quick clip is the trailer for the play. The below clip describes the horse puppeteering required to make the play work. Its technically fascinating and definately a show I would travel to see!