Book Review: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Joey is a warhorse, but he wasn't always. Once, he was a farm horse and a gentle boy named Albert was his master. Then World War I came storming through and everything changed.
Partial synopsis provided by Goodreads.
Book: War Horse
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Publication Date: first published in Great Britain in 1982
Publisher: Egmont UK
Page Count: 180
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Animals
Cover Artist: Rae Smith
My Rating: ★★★★★
Joey, a strapping young foal is sold at auction to an unlikable farmer. But the farmer’s son Albert, dotes on Joey and raises him to be a fine horse. When WWI shakes Europe, the English army travels from town to town, gathering up soldiers and purchasing horses to use for the war. In a bad way, Albert’s father sells Joey to the army behind his back, in order to pay off his debt. Beside himself, Albert swears that when he is old enough, he too, will enter the war and find Joey and bring him back home.
Joey is sent to a short training camp and learns how to become a war instrument instead of a simple plow horse. While he adjusts quickly to his new position, he is abruptly thrust into the front lines of the war. Guided by the kind hand of Captain Nicholls, Joey is at ease. He also becomes close companions with Topthorn, another pristine black horse. But the war isn’t so kind, and takes Captain Nicholls’ life in that first battle. Joey is passed between riders, until he is finally captured with Topthorn and enlisted into the German army for a few years
The two find solace as they are kept by a young French girl Emilie and her grandfather, and used to pull the German ambulance carts. The war lulls, and the Germans leave the two horses in the young girls’ care. However, soon after, a different regiment comes through and takes the horses again to pull ammunition carts. It’s heavy work, and many horses perish, and Topthorn grows gravely ill.
Spring returns, but Topthorn never fully regains his strength, and ends up dying due to complications. Although devastated with losing Topthorn, Joey escapes the Germans’ clutches in a raid by the English. He ends up getting stuck in No-Man’s-Land, and severely injures himself. Both armies see the poor horse’s condition, and end up flipping a coin to see who would take him back to their company to be cared for. The English win, and take him back to their veterinary base.
Ironically enough, Joey is confronted by Albert, who is now enlisted in the army to give veterinary service to sick and wounded horses. The two are elated at finding one another again, however, Joey grows gravely ill from his injuries he obtained in No-Man’s-Land. With Albert and the other order-lee’s help, they are able to nurse him back to health.
Once Joey regains his strength, he is enlisted to work again and pull the ambulance cart for injured horses and bring them back from the front line. During this line of work, one of Albert’s closest friends is killed, and Albert becomes severely depressed. It isn’t until talk of the war ending that he begins to liven up, saying how he and Joey will soon go home.
The army has different plans, and auctions off all the horses to the highest bidders, many being French butchers. Desperate to keep his horse, Albert asks for help. All of the soldiers pitch in to raise money to buy Joey, even though it is against orders. They end up being outbid by the old French gentleman who had kept Joey and Topthorn back when they were with the Germans. Hearing Albert’s story, about how he owned Joey since he was a colt, he decided to give Joey to him for an English penny, as his Emilie had passed away. He didn’t want to see Joey, the beloved horse by his granddaughter, go to a slaughterhouse.
Albert and Joey are able to return home, and live out the rest of their days in each other’s company.
”That’s what war is all about, my friend. It’s about which of us is the madder.”
I remember when I saw this movie when it first came out in theatre. At the time, I didn’t realize it was an adaptation from a book. Naturally, when I learned of its origins, I had to read the book as well! War Horse is told in a similar fashion to Black Beauty, as it is told from the horse’s (Joey’s) perspective. While this point-of-view may be slightly limiting as it leaves out a lot of human emotion, I appreciated how it simplified the narration and actually made everything come across more bluntly. Just like humans, Joey and the other horses felt and experienced raw emotions throughout the war. Fear, anxiety, comradery, sacrifice–however, they came across without jadedness. Unlike humans, animals feel emotions without complications. This narration bled into the human characters throughout that were pivotal in Joey’s story, as their complicated situations were unraveled to reveal the jewels underneath.
The main point about this book that I love is the theme of human value. Despite the fact of there being a war going on, there weren’t any ruthless characters that only wanted to kill, kill, kill. Everyone had a sense of general right and wrong and understood the fact that war is ugly, traumatic, complicated, and tiresome.
”The horse is yours. Take good care of him, my friend,” and he picked up the rope again and handed it to the Welshman. As he did so he held out his other hand in a gesture of friendship and reconciliation, a smile lighting his worn face. “In an hour, maybe, or two,” he said, “We will be trying to our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think he has maybe forgotten why. Goodby Welshman. We have shown them, haven’t we? We have shown them that any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other. That is all it needs, no?”
This element of humanity is undeniably prevalent in a pure form to show how humans can only take so much. For a majority of this war, the people didn’t even know what they were fighting for. They didn’t hate each other–they knew they were all equals, and they respected each other in that.
Comparably, the theme of friendship is very strong. Deep friendships between men, horses, and men to horses, exist in several examples. Albert and Joey–Joey and Captain Nicholls–Joey and Topthorn–Joey, Topthorn, and Emilie, and several other connections overflow this book with friendship. I believe this is the aspect which makes this book so emotional because the deepness of affection between characters in untainted ways is tangible. It’s so tangible, in fact, that several characters willingly faced their fears in order to sacrifice for one another.
This book is devastatingly heart-wrenching at times but makes you feel so good at others. It’s a short read, but is packed full of virtue, respectful characters, and honorable missions–both by horse and man. It was a refreshing read and completely cleansed my palate. This book is aimed at children to young adults, but can easily be read and appreciated by someone of any age. I would highly recommend this read to anyone.
Vulgarity: The “H” word is only used once.
Sexual content: None at all.
Violence: Seeing how this book is about WWI, the evidence of violence is there. However, the author does a wonderful job in its portrayal and steers clear of gore, unnecessarily graphic scenes, and the like.