Okay, not gonna lie. War Horse made me cry. More than once. That probably has something to do with the fact that I was reading it out loud to my son. It’s always harder to read sad parts out loud, but if you’re an animal lover or a softie like me, be forewarned that this book might make you sniffle.
This is the story of Joey, a red bay horse that finds himself transported from the pastoral countryside of England to the battlefields of WWI and in the process is taken from his loving young owner, Albert. The book is told from Joey’s point of view, which keeps the story simple and avoids bogging it down in the complexities of war. There’s no talk of politics, and only a very short explanation is given for why the war is happening. Joey’s voice is sincere and gentle, while also determined, and you can’t help but love him the way many of the characters do.
War Horse deals with the fear and monotony of war, the pain of separation, sickness, and death without ever feeling preachy. Joey and the other horses deal with all of these issues just as the human characters do and in this way are a metaphor for the soldiers while being presented in the role of brave and long-suffering soldiers themselves. The horses are portrayed as both a symbol of hope and the standard by which everything in the story is measured:
“There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.” (p. 112)
In the story, characters are measured by how they treat the horses—with kindness and respect or with a harsh hand, although even the unkind characters are depicted as having reasons for the way they are. The author doesn’t present any cardboard villains, only people hardened by circumstances.
Likewise, Michael Morpurgo shows how the war is a struggle for soldiers on both sides and how really all any of them wants—man or beast—is to go home and live out their days in peace. There’s a wonderful scene involving two “enemies” and their mutual concern for Joey, which highlights how alike they are despite the war.
Without unnecessary or gory description, the author creates a realistic picture of WWI’s horrific atmosphere. Through details like barbed wire, mud, the trenches and no man’s land, he more than adequately communicates the bleakness and devastation faced by the soldiers and the horses. Since this is a middle grade book, I found that to be especially important. Where a topic like this is concerned I’d rather kids understand the heart of the matter than get hung up on the blood and guts of it.
War Horse isn’t a fast moving book, though it would be quick to get through if you aren’t reading it out loud (or stopping to blow your nose and wipe your eyes like me). I found the vocabulary to be fairly advanced for middle grade, incorporating words like peremptory, jocular, convalescence and intermittent, making it a good challenge for the younger set and advanced enough for adults.
My son and I finished reading War Horse yesterday, which was Remembrance Day here in Canada. When we were through, our family also watched the movie together. Both the book and movie were great reminders of those who served and gave their lives during WWI and an excellent way to commemorate the occasion. I’d highly recommend War Horse to anyone looking for a good educational resource on WWI or just a moving read about memorable characters during an important time in history.