Despite being an avid reader as a child, I somehow missed out on Michael Morpurgo. The only one of his books that I read was Twist of Gold, at an age when I was starting to consider myself ‘too old’ for the children’s section of the library, and all I can remember is that it was about two children from Ireland who go to America to find their father during the Irish potato famine, and that it made me cry. But last week I read my second Michael Morpurgo book, War Horse, because I had decided to go to see the new Steven Spielberg film and wanted to read the book first. And War Horse, like all the best children’s books, is a book that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
War Horse has a strong anti-war message and shows us the horrors of World War I from a very unusual perspective. The story is narrated by Joey, a young thoroughbred horse, who is bought at auction by a poor farmer from Devon. The farmer soon regrets this decision but his son, Albert, forms a special bond with Joey and trains him to work on the farm, determined to prove to his father that he hasn’t wasted his money. However, the family are struggling to pay their rent and when war breaks out in 1914, Joey is sold to an army officer as a cavalry horse. The rest of the story follows Joey’s experiences in France, first with the British cavalry and then pulling ambulances and artillery for the German army, but will he survive the war and will he ever be reunited with Albert?
Being an animal lover, I’m ashamed to admit that I had never given much thought to the suffering of the horses involved in the First World War or what happened to them after the war was over. Seeing things through Joey’s eyes gave a fascinating new perspective and has helped me to learn a little bit about an aspect of the war I had never really considered. Many of the horses serving with Joey are killed in their very first battle (the thought of leading a cavalry charge into a line of machine guns is so horrible to think about) and more of them die of hunger, illness or exhaustion after being forced to pull guns that are too heavy for them up hills and through deep mud.
I couldn’t help comparing this book to Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, another book narrated by a horse and one of my absolute favourites from my childhood. I should point out that Joey is not a talking horse and although he does interact with other horses, including his best friend Topthorn, he never actually ‘speaks’ to them in the way Black Beauty does. And yet I found Black Beauty a much more convincing horse narrator than Joey. I kept forgetting that Joey was supposed to be a horse as I thought he sounded very much like a human narrator would. But to be fair, this is a different type of book and Joey is telling his story in a different way.
War Horse has a reputation for being very sad and emotional, and yes, I did have tears in my eyes a few times. The story never becomes too sentimental, but poor Joey does go through a lot of traumatic experiences, and of course the war itself is always distressing to read about. However, because the book is so short (it can easily be read in an hour or two) many of the characters we meet are only around for a few chapters and for one reason or another don’t appear again. This made it difficult to really form a connection with them and so the story didn’t have quite the emotional impact on me that I had been expecting. I’m sure though that if I’d been reading this book at the age of nine or ten I would probably have cried from beginning to end!
One of the things I really loved about the book was that Joey, being a horse, doesn’t ‘take sides’; he doesn’t see the British as good and the Germans bad, for example. Instead he is able to tell the story from a neutral viewpoint, something that is very rare in a novel about war. Joey meets and makes friends with soldiers in both armies and also with a French civilian and his granddaughter. And although he witnesses a lot of cruelty and destruction, he also experiences kindness and compassion from people on both sides. There’s a wonderful moment when a British soldier and a German soldier leave their trenches to meet in no man’s land. I won’t tell you why they do this, but this scene and others like it are what made this book such a powerful read.
This is my first book for the War Through the Generations challenge, which has a World War I theme this year. For anyone else participating in the challenge, I would highly recommend War Horse as a quick but very moving read.