I’ve never been that into horses. Don’t get me wrong, horses are great. I mean they’re basically superheroes – they can run shortly after birth, they can see nearly 360 degrees, and they can sleep standing up (ok, maybe that last one isn’t the greatest super power, but it’s still very impressive). I know horse personalities vary, but in my limited experience with them, I’ve never met a bad egg. They’re beautiful creatures. And whenever I watch a battle scene with soldiers on horseback at the movies, I’m more sad to see the horses fall in battle than the soldiers. But somehow, I’ve never been drawn to horse stories and if I’m honest, would probably even go so far as to respond to them with a “this one’s not for me”. So it comes as no surprise that I was late to the party when it comes to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. I still haven’t seen the stage performance or the Spielberg film adaptation, but I can now put a big check mark next to “read the book”.
War Horse follows Joey, a bay-red foal, from farm life to the war on the Western Front. As Joey is transferred from owner to owner, we see war from his point of view as well as from the perspectives of his various caregivers, on both sides of the war in England, Germany and France. The story is narrated using fairly simple language to match Joey’s limited awareness and the way he sees the war. Still, plenty of people talk to Joey, sharing their thoughts and concerns, asking things of him, and Joey communicates with people in his own way. While Joey has a job to perform at each stop along his way, it’s also clear that his value to his caretakers goes far beyond his contributions as a work animal. Joey also has some horse companions, Zoey and Topthorn – one a farm horse, the other a war horse. Unlike with many animal stories, the horses themselves do not have some special, secret horse communication, yet Joey still feels a strong connection with these two horses.
Morpurgo had several inspirations for War Horse, including conversations with World War I veterans and a haunting painting of horses charging into a barbed wire fence during battle. In a piece written for The Telegraph titled “War Horse: When Horses Were Heroes”, Morpurgo also shared a particularly touching inspiration for the story – an encounter he once witnessed between a boy with a debilitating stammer and a farm horse:
As I came into the stable yard behind the house I found Billy standing under the stable light, talking freely to one of the horses. He spoke confidently, knowing he was not being judged or mocked. And I had the very strong impression that the horse was listening, and understanding too. It was an unforgettable moment for all three of us, I think. It was that extraordinary moment that gave me the confidence I needed to begin writing War Horse.
That story alone moved me to tears. War Horse also moved me to tears several times. I’m sure if I ever get around to watching the movie, Spielberg will make sure to have the music swell just right at all the tearjerker moments. The story is moving, war is harsh, and the themes of family, friendship, courage, and communication across language barriers are explored in interesting ways. But it is the uniqueness of Joey as a narrator and protagonist that makes War Horse really stand out.
Through his performance on the audiobook recording, reader John Keating distinguishes between Joey and his various owners, giving each a distinct voice and accent. The audio recording is well paced and overall a short listen at just over four hours. I’m glad I finally gave this “horse story” a listen.
Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Reader: John Keating
Publishers: Scholastic Audiobooks (2010)