Saturday, October 29, 2011
War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Francois Place. Egmont, Publishers Group Canada. $19.95 ages 9 and up
Are you looking for a powerful story to read to your children as thoughts turn to Remembrance Day, and the effects of war? This book was written in 1982 and concerns a young man and his horse. It is set in World War I and has much to say about both the human and the equine spirit.
It didn't have an strong impact at the time of publication, but it remains in print today (a testament to its brilliant writing) and has been made into a new Steven Spielberg movie, due before Christmas. The inspiration for the story came from conversations that Michael Morpurgo had with a WWI cavalry veteran:
“He told me with tears in his eyes that the only person he could talk to there — and he called this horse a person — was his horse.”
The author went on to discover much more about the one to two million British horses that were sent to the front lines during the war. Unbelievably, only about 65,000 returned. He thought it would be of interest to tell their story. He had some difficulty finding a way to do that. He found inspiration one day while watching a young boy with a debilitating stutter speak to a horse:
“And he was talking to the horse, and his voice was flowing. It was simply unlocked. And as I listened to this boy telling the horse everything he’d done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn’t understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child.”
Voila! Joey, the horse, became the voice that would tell this beautifully written tale. He tells his story from where his life began. After being bought at auction by Albert's father, Joey learns kindness and loyalty through the love shown by the young boy. Albert trains and cares for him; but war threatens and Joey is sold to the cavalry for use in battle. At that time, there was still some thought given to a cavalry charge being the best offence. Joey is on the front line.
He proves himself brave and resilient, managing to survive and help many soldiers stay safe, or carry them to safety. He displays his emotions as he feels them: caring for Topthorn, accepting all that happens to him, and playing a role for both sides. To a horse, there is injustice, brutality, love and kindness no matter which side is being served. He wants to be fed, cared for and to know that those around him are safe.
Albert is unable to forget the love he has for his horse and is desperate to find him, hoping to bring Joey home. Since he is too young to enlist, he must find his own way to the front.
Michael Morpurgo shows the universal suffering that war affords, and the horrors of the fighting. He portrays the scenes with powerful writing and honesty. Two millions horses and nineteen million people were the casualties of the first great war...it is not a pretty picture. Morpurgo balances those scenes with the love and loyalty shown by soldiers, by their equine companions and through the unfailing love of a young man for his horse:
"And so I came home from the war that Christmas-time with my Albert riding me up into the village, and there to greet us was the silver band from Hatherleigh and the rapturous peeling of the church bells. Both of us were received like conquering heroes, but we both knew that the real heroes had not come home, that they were lying out in France alongside Captain Nicholls, Topthorn, Friedrich, David and little Emilie."