By Michael Morpurgo
Published by Egmont
ISBN 978 1 4052 2666 0
Michael Morpurgo's classic animal-at-war novel War Horse has just been reissued in a sparkling new edition following the story's sell-out success as a stage play in London and in New York. Movie director Steven Spielberg is currently filming the novel for release this autumn, so now is a perfect time to get the novel and see what War Horse is all about before the Hollywood version arrives.
Morpurgo is a classy teller of animal tales, and in a less skilled hand, War Horse could well have ended up as over-the-top sentimental slush, despite its serious theme. He takes a great risk in asking the reader to accept a horse as the storyteller, but this strange narrative device is quickly forgiven and forgotten because of the author's skill in getting the reader on his side. Luckily, Morpurgo is a writer who can pull off almost anything, and War Horse is a masterpiece.
Joey, a beautiful, young, red bay horse with a white cross on his forehead, is sold at a horse auction to a farmer in the south of Britain. After taking some time to settle into his new life, high-spirited Joey forms a bond with 13-year-old Albert, the farmer's son. The two of them seem to understand each other and their friendship is unspoken, but strong.
But heartbreak is just around the corner for both boy and horse. Albert's father needs money to keep his farm going, and there is one way he can get some ready cash. He decides to sell Joey.
The terrible first world war is being fought in northern France, and the army needs horses to transport soldiers and weapons. Joey is sold to the British army, and young Albert is devastated. He promises the horse that one day he will find him in France and bring him home. The pages where Joey and Albert are forced apart will moisten the eyes of even the least sentimental reader.
Joey is shipped to France into the middle of fighting and bloodshed. His first rider, a Captain Nicholls, is killed in battle and Joey joins a team of horses that pull ambulance wagons away from the battle zone.
Things take a turn for the worse when he is captured by the German army and put to work pulling cannons and guns through the mud-covered battlefields, a witness to the true horrors of war.
Back in Britain, Albert has lied about his age and has joined the army. He is determined to find Joey and keep his word to bring him back home and to safety.
War Horse is an eloquently told story that will keep horse lovers on the edge of their seats, as well as anyone else who enjoys well written, moving prose. It is both a gripping historical novel, but more importantly, a moving story about the meaning of friendship.
Morpurgo never lets the story slip into sentimentality or anti-war lecturing, but anyone who reads this novel will have developed strong feelings on the matter by the time they get to the end of Joey's story.