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.
War Horse is 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, 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.
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