Saturday, November 19, 2011

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (Guest Post by Kate Sutter)

***contains spoilers***

I am a High School American History teacher, and when I as approached about writing for the blog, I decided I wanted to pick something that was related to my content area.  I perused the school library one afternoon and, spotting the librarian’s Veterans Day display, was interested by Morpurgo’s War Horse.  After I started to read, I realized it was on the lower end of “young adult” but thought I would finish it anyway.

War Horse is a children’s fiction novel about World War I written by Michael Morpurgo in 1982, and it became a stage play in 2007.  It is being produced for the big screen by Steven Spielberg and is due to be released on Christmas 2011.  Since the movie will bring attention to the book, I felt an amateur review might be beneficial to at least someone. 

The book moves quickly and, and in most cases, lingers on few details after the opening chapters of Joey’s life on an English farm.  There are some issues that might give parents concern or children pause, but as with many heart-warming stories about animals, the happy ending may provoke a few tears of the good kind. 

The story opens at a horse auction in Britain where our narrator, a colt soon-to-be-named Joey, is separated from his mother when both are sold.  Purchased by a drunken farmer, he soon meets his new master, the farmer’s kindly teenaged son Albert.  At several points, Albert and his mother argue about the farmer’s drinking, the mood it puts him in, and the poor decisions he makes because of it.  On one occasion, the farmer comes to the barn drunk to talk to Joey, and frightened, Joey kicks him.  He’d made a bet with the neighbor about a task Albert must train Joey to do, but they are successful.  When Albert’s mother reveals that the farmer’s drinking is due to his financial problems, she foreshadows his decision to sell Joey to the British cavalry when WWI breaks out.  Albert’s last promise to Joey is to join the military someday and find him.

During the war, Joey meets a series of protectors - both the human and equine.  First it is his purchaser, Captain Nicholls, who is killed during their first battle, and another horse, Topthorn, who treats him kindly and calms Joey’s fears, especially as the troops are on board ship crossing the English Channel to war.   Some of the troops, including the horses, are captured by the Germans and ultimately, Joey and Topthorn are given the task of pulling ambulances of wounded soldiers from the front lines.  The horses are boarded with a French farmer and his granddaughter Emilie, who treat them well.  When the Germans leave the area, they leave the horses with them.  Soon though, another unit passing through takes the horses to pull artillery, and Emilie is devastated. 

They soon come under the care of “Crazy Old” Friedrich who is actually a kind soldier who knows horses.  He treats them kindly, but one day as they return from a drink at the river, Topthorn unexpectedly dies of heart failure.  A battle immediately begins, and Friedrich is also killed.  Joey stays next to the bodies of Topthorn and Friedrich for over a day when a tank comes into view.  It terrifies the horse, and he runs away, is injured in barbed wire,  and ends up in the middle of No Man’s Land.  Both sides try to call the horse, and ultimately a white flag is raised.  An older German and a young Brit meet and flip a coin for Joey.  He is won by the Brit and is taken back to the stables.  Working with the veterinarians is Albert, who has told everyone he knows about his goal of finding Joey.  They save him from tetanus and again put him to work pulling an ambulance wagon. 

When the war ends, the soldiers find out that the horses will be sold in France rather than being taken back to England.  They pool their money and try to buy Joey for Albert, but an elderly Frenchman calls out that he’ll pay as much as it takes to purchase the horse.  He does, and Albert goes to talk to him before they leave.  The man is Emilie’s grandfather, who is fulfilling her dying wish.  He’d promised to find the horse and bring him back to live on the farm for the rest of his life.  Knowing Albert will give him the same life, the Frenchman sells Joey back to Albert for an English penny and a promise not to let Emilie’s memory die. 

Joey and Albert return to the family farm, where Albert’s mother assures him that their father is a changed man and had stopped drinking after sending Joey off to war.  Albert takes over the farm and marries his sweetheart Maisie.  His father is said to treat both Joey and the grandchildren well.

2 Stars

As an animal-loving adult with a history degree, I was disappointed. It's been a while since I read a children's book, but I was hoping to like it more. I think it does lend itself to be a very good family tear-jerker though, because readers won't have a whole lot of details to argue Spielberg changed. Much can be added without violating the integrity of the story.

Personally, I give the book a 2 or 2.5 out of 5. For classroom use though, I don't think there's much historical fiction out there about WWI, and I didn't see any inaccuracies, so I do think it has value for students.

Teacher Advisories
Sex 0/5 
There's none.
Language 0/5 
Substance Abuses 3/5
Tobacco/Alcohol: At first it seems drunkenness will be an overarching theme, but is only rarely addressed after the first few chapters. Overall, the topic is probably a “2” but since it plays so prominently into the opening chapters, I ranked it higher given that it will be the reader’s first impression. Soldiers are also briefly described as smoking.
Violence 2/5
Fear/Blood: On several occasions, Joey’s terror is described, but human fear is not addressed often.  Descriptions of death in war are not given in detail though some of Joey’s friends are killed.

Touchy Subjects
The farmers bet on whether Joey can pull a plow, and Albert trains him within a week.  Also, there is a coin flip in No Man’s Land for whether the Germans or the British will get to keep Joey.

How this book is used in the classroom
1] Independent Read option for lower level readers
2] Themes and/or topics for discussion
  • Loyalty and devotion, keeping promises
  • Poor decision making when impaired by alcohol
  • Economic concerns and how they affect people
  • When decisions made during war must come before personal preferences
  • Giving your all to do jobs that you weren’t born, trained, or “bred” for
  • How to treat animals
  • Separation and union
3] Websites
A guide from Lincoln Center

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