by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
One of the first children’s novels I read when I was eight years old was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. At that age, I thought it was a neat story about a horse. I did not know that it was not meant as a children’s book about a horse, but as a Victorian plea for the humane treatment of horses and humans. Generations read and cried over that book.
This generation has War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, a tale of a young boy, a horse, and the war that pulled them apart. Loved since its publication in Great Britain in 1982, the book inspired electrifying stage productions on both sides of the Atlantic, and has been transformed into a movie by director Steven Spielberg.
Like Black Beauty, War Horse is narrated by its main horse character from a first-person viewpoint. In this case, it’s Joey, raised as a distinctively-marked, reddish colt in the Devon countryside of England by young Albert, who vows to get back what he considers his when father sells the horse to a British officer, who trains the part-thoroughbred bay for military duty in World War I. Albert is too young to serve, but he waits for the day he can go to war and find his faithful equine friend.
Joey tells of his experiences on both sides of the front lines, charging the enemy, pulling loads, carrying the wounded, cared for by a French family in German-held territory, and wandering No-Man’s-Land. Since it is war, there are descriptions of violence, but not much more graphic than you’ll see on the evening news.
There are friendships: the boy-master he loves, the proud horse Topthorn who models the behavior of a war horse for Joey, and the sweet Emilie who cares for the horses when the military doesn’t. There is also military non-intelligence, sending horses into a battlefield of barbed wire and machine guns, hitching cavalry horses to pull artillery through mud and snow, and sacrificing men for a strip of land that might be lost the next day.
Of course, the book is noted for its “anti-war bias.” Nobody thinks war is a nice thing, although some people seem to think it is the way to get what they want: land, power, the elimination of some group that is not like theirs in some way.
War Horse points out the ways people are alike: soldiers on both sides of the war care about the horses, they all recognize nobility and bravery, and love and friendship is found everywhere. If that is part of being anti-war, then we could use a little more of it in the books we give our children to read.
Watch for a review of the movie War Horse here soon!