War Horse – Michael Morpurgo

I should open today’s post with a disclaimer right from that start that books about WWI or WWII are something I feel over saturate the market. If done well they can be incredibly emotive and powerful but all too often they fall into the ‘man and woman fall in love, he goes off to war, its horrific, she hears he is dead but actually it was a mistaken telegram and they get back together, the end’. I should also mention that I don’t really like horses (much to the dismay of one of my closest friends) be they real or fictional ones. Why on earth read ‘War Horse’ then? Actually not because of the movie, which I was slightly aware was being released soon, but because I saw DogEarDiscs rate it five stars on Good Reads and had been contemplating reading more YA so it seemed like a good idea.

Egmont Books, paperback, 1982, fiction, 182 pages, borrowed from the library

I didn’t think I was going to like ‘War Horse’ when I started it, not because war books are so hit and miss with me or because I don’t like horses, both facts are true yet I knew this was coming from the title so was ready, but because I didn’t expect the novel to be narrated by the horse, Joey, himself. As soon as I realised this I thought something a little ruder than ‘oh no’ because my saccharine alert had been switched on. Like child narrators, animal narration can kill a book with one out of place word or description. Interestingly ‘War Horse’ both excels and in some ways fails because of this device.

Joey is a half bred foal when he is separated from his mother at an auction, ‘little I was worth’, and bought by an alcoholic farmer at a market in Devon who doesn’t actually want him but buys him as he is so cheap. On the farm he meets Albert and the two form an instant bond, slowly but surely Joey becomes one of the finest horses around, something Albert’s father never believed possible, yet when war is declared Albert’s father sees an opportunity of financial gain and the fates of Joey and Albert are changed, especially as Albert is not old enough to fight. Despite the fact I know you can all imagine what happens with the novel I don’t want to give too much more away but we do from this point see the war through the eyes of a horse.

In some ways Joey narrating this is a really interesting idea. It gives a very different spin on the whole war idea, a different angle in many ways. This is also probably much more effective on its intended audience as this book is aimed at a younger market and so in a way makes this more accessible, we all like animals on the whole when we are younger don’t we?  Yet as an adult reading this it added a certain distance, it was emotive and I could imagine as a kid this book hitting home but as an adult it really wasn’t. As the story plays out further characters, it is a war after all, might not be around for all that long and so characters are never quite feel fully developed. Great to illustrate to children the effects of war and quite shocking, as an adult I wanted further character development before I could really feel losses as and when they came, even in the case of Emilie which should have been much more effecting.

This isn’t all negative I promise. There are some very successful moments for example when Joey crosses no man’s, interestingly when it is just Joey describing his surrounding and the atmosphere, was very eerie indeed. I also thought Morpurgo did something that was particularly clever, and that was to not create any major villains. In fact all the ‘baddies’, apart from the war itself, are offstage really. Morpurgo doesn’t make the British soldiers ‘good’ and the German’s ‘bad’ instead he illustrates two sides of a war and how innocent men were brought into it from both sides because they had no choice/felt it was right for their country but didn’t want the war in the first place. That I thought was very powerful.

As you can see it’s a mixed bag of feeling for me with ‘War Horse’. I am glad that I have read it, but it didn’t hit all the buttons I had hoped it would, thankfully though it wasn’t saccharine in the slightest, it moved me, just not as much as I was expecting it was going to. I do think that I should mention that the book was originally published in 1982, it’s as old as me can you believe it, and I think naturally all books, not just children’s, have developed with a society that isn’t as easy to shock so that needs to be taken into account too.

I would be interested to see how it has been adapted though; my uncle and cousin came back from the movies and had clearly had a good cry. Who else has read it? Who has seen the play or the film? What did you think?

18 Comments

Filed under Egmont Books, Michael Morpurgo, Review, Young Adult Fiction

18 responses to “War Horse – Michael Morpurgo

  1. I like horses so maybe that’s why I cried the way through the book. Morpurgo has said he never intended to write a children’s book but felt a horse would be a neutral narrator for a war he feels strongly about. But because adults don’t tend to connect to animal narrators it became a children’s book. I think the film is in keeping with the book, it’s more about the horse and less about the action. Though the film moved me less than the book. I’d live to see the stage version even just for the amazing puppetry.

    • I don’t know where my irrational fear of horses comes from but it does spread into my world of fiction. That said I could have loathed this and I didn’t by any means. I just couldn’t get 100% involved with it, I could see why its been such a success though.

  2. If you don’t like WW1 books I think you are reading the wrong ones, Simon! 😉
    I’ve just finished reading David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter — also, by chance, published in 1982 — and it is simply a devastating read, and not a romantic storyline in sight!
    I’ve not read War Horse, but have wanted to see the stage show for AGES! Happily, I received a ticket to see it next month as part of my Christmas gift from Mr Reading Matters and I’m really looking forward to it. For some strange reason I am not interested in going to see the film…

    • It’s not that I don’t like them, more that there are sooooo many of them and a lot I have encountered can be formulaic. That said I would happily read more to be proven wring. I have noted the David Malouf title, he is an author I have always wanted to try but worry might be too high brow for me.

      I would like to see the War Horse play, I think William of Just Williams Luck is in it isnt he?

      Re the horses thing, weirdly I really want to read ‘Foals Bread’ which you wrote about the other week and might ave a copy on it’s way!

  3. I’m writing as a big fan of Pat Barker who writes about little else but WWI. She does not follow the formula you describe, not so far as I’ve read at least.

    Warhorse does sound like a book many of my students would enjoy, and like a good companion read for All Quiet on the Western Front. I’m not sure what I think about the no bad guys/good guys idea. While what you say is probably true for most of the soldiers in a way, one side does have to start a war. Does that make all of the soldiers on that side “bad guys”? Certainly an interesting questions.

    • Its those questions that would make this a fantastic read for younger people, and adults in a way. The whole way through the book we know war is a bad thing, what we have is people following orders rather than doing it to ‘win’ if that makes sense. You feel like the puppeteers are missing from the mainstage but they are there in the background, a foreboding prescence like the guns going off in the distance.

      I do want to read All Quiet on the Western front, I have heard that is excellent, and Pat Barker is someone I want to try too!

  4. I have not seen the movie but recently saw the play in New York City. It was brilliantly staged, the “puppets” are extraordinary and the point of the narrative hit home resoundingly for the adult audience gathered at Lincoln Centre. When the actors had left the stage, people just stood there silently, awash with feelings and the magic of the puppetry and acting.

    • That does sound like it was incredible. If it tours the UK or if I get the chance when I next go back to London for a visit I will have to check it out. I do want to see both adaptations interestingly.

  5. I loved the book, as Simon touched upon, but then I enjoy World War novels… and horses. My biggest love that taking away from the kids book side of things, Morpurgo sums up the general consensus that war is stupid. There is a particular conversation towards the end of the book when a Welsh soldier and German soldier meet in no man’s land to help free the horse from barbed wire. It goes thus:

    “In an hour, maybe, or two. We will be trying our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think he has maybe forgotten why. Goodbye Welshman. 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? The little Welshman shook his head in disbelief as he took the rope. ‘Jerry, boyo, I think if they would let you and me have an hour or two out here together, we could sort out this whole wretched mess. There would be no more weeping widows and crying children in my valley and no more in yours.’”

    THAT. That sentiment is why I love the book so much.

    Now onto a rant (to which I will tackle in a blog post soon). The film is good, but not if you’ve read the book. The last half of the book’s story has been changed for the sake of the screen. Beautiful pieces of dialogue have been scrapped, for who knows what reason and even the ending has been so bastardised that it takes away the genuine emotion that Morpurgo created. /endrant

    • I didn’t dislike the book at all, thats what I am hoping people arent missing. I just didnt love it as much as many, including your good self, have done when they have read it.

      The scene between the two soldiers you mention is one of the main successes that I mentioned that really worked in this book, I thought that sentiment was indeed marvellous. I just wanted to feel closer to the characters, even the blinking horse actually. Ha.

      I am glad I read it from seeing your review though, so thank you.

  6. I saw the play and loved the puppets, but was really not into the story which seemed too simplistic (and focused on Albert and Joey, when he was an important horse to others who just got left). And I think there were some actors giving terrible performances when I saw it.

    The book sounds better in terms fo story, because of the talking horse narrator (hurray Black Beauty, which I think this book is influenced by) and because Albert’s dad sounds different than he is in the play (actual alcholic vs loveable man who makes bad decisions and is quite a sentimental character). Although seeing that quote above…I’m not sure how I’ll get on with the style.

    • The style is a funny one. I don’t think all young adult bokos address their readers like young adults, I know what I mean so I hope you do, but this one does and that slight distance feels like its holding back or holding out. I think that was where the issue was for me and it does effect the style of the book.

  7. Janet D

    I loved the book even though I am not keen on horses or war themed books.

  8. I hear that the stage play of this with puppets is amazing. I have not seen the movie yet, but really enjoyed this novel. It brought me back to a younger self. I think he did well with not portraying one side as bad and the other good — and I think he’s said that it is a commentary on war in general.

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