Michael Morpurgo: War Horse

It's been a shamefully long time since I did a review. My fellow reviewer will not be contributing to this. I made the fatal mistake of buying her the first two Georgia Nicholson books, and so all hope was lost as far as horsey book reviewing went. Added to that, she is now off in Germany on her school trip, wildly excited as this is the first time she has been Abroad. She was so full of whoomph she managed to get up effortlessly at 3.00 am on Wednesday so we could get to Kettering in time for the 4.15 am start. Although I am definitely a lark, and usually wake at 5.00 am at this time of year, 3.00 am was pushing it a little, particularly as I didn't sleep well, being too petrified of oversleeping and missing the off..... despite having own mobile, son's and husband's all set for a 3.00 am alarm call.

When son did this trip (though it was France in his case) one of his friends did miss the coach, and so his mother chased it down the M1 before finally catching up at a service station.

But I digress.

War Horse is near the top, if not at the top of all the books I've read for my survey of the modern pony book. That said, it's not a pony book: it is a story about a horse: perhaps more of a successor to Black Beauty than anything else. Like Black Beauty it's written in the first person. My heart sank when I started the book and realised this was how it was written. Normally I don't like first person narratives when the narrator is a horse. It takes a skilled writer to make the first person narrative work, and for it to work when you are pretending to be a horse needs more than average skill. Often a horse telling its own story tends to produce a trite and not particularly believable story. Horses don't experience human emotions, and writing as if they do lessens the horse and its story.

Joey, the book's equine hero, soon emerges as a completely credible horse. The emotions he feels: affection for those who show kindness to him; loyalty and affection for Topthorn, the large black horse who is his friend; bewilderment; and acceptance of what befalls him, are all totally believable, and totally equine. Michael Morpurgo is incredibly surefooted in his portrayal of the horse.

Joey's story opens when he is a young foal, being sold at market. He is bought by a farmer who is made vicious by worry and drink, but the farmer's son, Albert is different. He trains Joey and shows him love and kindness, but war is hovering on the horizon. Many horses were sold to the Cavalry during World War One; the Army still working to the old model of the Cavalry charge as the supreme weapon, and Joey is sold by Albert's father for the cavalry. Joey's first, and last charge, shows the utter futility of using horses in this way against machine guns. Cavalry charges soon stopped, and horses were used for transport.

Joey in fact changes sides as he crashes through to the German side during the charge and is taken to pull the German ambulances. Joey's view of the war is of course that of a horse: he does not care what side he is working for. What he cares for is how comfortable he is; and how his companions fare. Using the horse and its neutral point of view means that Michael Morpurgo can show that cruelty and kindness exist on both sides.

Like Black Beauty, this book wants to describe the plight of the horse: it does show the horror of what the millions of horses who served in World War I went through, but not only that: the horror the human characters suffer is shown just as well. Joey's first rider dies in the first few minutes of his first action in the war.

Michael Morpurgo said:

Here's what war did. It burned flesh. It killed my uncle. It made my mother weep. So I grew up with the damage of war all around me. I learned that buildings you can put up again, but lives are wrecked forever.

By using Joey to relate what he sees, and repeat what he hears, (fortunately Joey has remarkable linguistic ability) we see the human perspective of the war too. The human characters are realised as well as the horses. They suffer and die as pointlessly. One of the most sympathetic and interesting human characters is Friedrich. Topthorn and Joey are put to pulling the guns. This was a dreadful task, particularly in winter, struggling against the mud of the trenches. Friedrich, who sings and laughs to himself, is seen as mad by some of the other soldiers, but he expresses what I think is probably Michael Morpurgo's view on the war:

"We soon discovered that he was not the slightest bit mad , but simply a kind and gentle man whose whole nature cried out against fighting a war....

'I tell you, my friends,' he said one day. 'I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It's the others that are mad, but they don't know it. They fight a war and they don't know what for. Isn't that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language? And it's me they call mad! You two are the only rational creatures I've met in this benighted war, and like me the only reason you're here is because you were brought here.' "

Not all the characters survive the war, and this makes this book a harrowing read at times; but it reflects how things were and is a better book for not shrinking from portraying the pity of war. Around two million horses died during the War, and around 19 million soldiers and civilians. Some children might find this hard to take, but there is enough kindness, and ultimately, triumph in the book to balance this. It's possibly a little old-fashioned to find a book uplifting, but this book is. It shows the triumph of the human and the equine spirit.

The National Theatre is now booking again for its production of War Horse. You can see photographs of the production here, and I am desperate, absolutely desperate to see it.


winnie said…
Michael Morpurgo is a bit of a favourite of mine although War Horse isn't my favourite MM book. The one that makes me cry every time is Out Of The Ashes, it's just too sad for words.
I agree about the author's realism, he doesn't shirk away from hard truths and I think that's what child readers appreciate.
Favourite MM books of mine are Adolphus Tips, Kensuke's Kingdom and Across A Wide Wide Sea.
Juxtabook said…
What an absolutely cracking review! Thank you.
Juliet said…
Thanks for this review - it sounds excellent. I bought this for my son recently because he's enjoyed lots of other Morpurgo books, as well as Michael Foreman's War Boy and War Dog by Martin Booth (you can see an emerging theme here!). I think War Horse is still on his TBR pile - I will find a way to prod him into reading it soon because I'm now so inspired to see if I can get tickets to see the production, which looks absolutely amazing.
Anonymous said…
I hoped I'd see the play on my next trip over, but alas it's booked up for months.

On a related note who's read Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt? She gets the horses exactly right, and I was weeping for most of the book!
Unknown said…
I've got this book and admire it. Your review is excellent - you really get to the point of why the book is so good.

I agree about not being overly keen on stories told from the horse's point of view. I've got a few sub-Black Beauty pony books from the 30's and 40's and they can be very anthropomorphic. As well as all having pretty much the same story. No wonder the girl (Christabel ?) in 'I had two ponies' is convinced hers are going to end up in harness, dragged overladen carts. It happens in all the 'life of a pony' books.
Jane Badger said…
Winnie - more to add to my TBR list. Thank you!
Juxtabook - thank you. Juliet - I've seen War Dog but not read it. I hope your boy enjoys War Horse. Doesn't the production look marvellous? Susannah - I've not read our Horses in Egypt, but have read Dorothea Brooke's biography by Glenda Spooner and that's pretty wrenching. I did have the plight of the horses left in Egypt in the first draft of the review but cut it out as I was so tempted to expand on them.
Gillian - I know exactly what you mean. The pony always starts off life well, goes downhill and is then rescued. Maybe it's the authors' ages? Many of those titles were written by teenagers.
Harriet said…
This is such an amazing read. I read it when I was 11 or so and two years on I have not forgotten the story and have seen the theatre production in London and loved every minute of it. Like all of Morpurgo's books I cried when I read this one and am glad to say War Horse is going to be released as a film on 10th August 2011!
Jane Badger said…
Yes, I'm intrigued by what Stephen Spielberg's going to do with it!
Anonymous said…
I love the reveiw. My teacher is reading War Horse to us at school and i wanted to be sure what i was listening to but she has read Private Peaceful and i expect it to be just as brilliant.

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