"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 abomination of a 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.”
In WWI, the British Empire mobilized 8.9 million men to send over to France. Over 900,000 would never return. What a lot of people do not know, is that Britain also mobilized a million horses for the front, and only 62,000 would live to see the end of the war. Many died from exhaustion and overwork, but some fell on the battlefield, taken down by machine guns and barbed wire. In his 1982 novel, Michael Morpurgo shows us the horrors of the first world war through the eyes of one of these magnificent creatures who gave their all in a fight that was not theirs.
This story is told through the eyes of Joey, a young thoroughbred in Devon, England. He is separated from his mother at a young age and sold to an alcoholic farmer. The farmer's young son, Albert, takes a shine to the colt and soon they are the best of friends. Albert rides Joey daily and trains him up not just as a good mount, but also for farm work as his father wishes. At the outbreak of World War I, the British cavalry is in need horses and Albert's father decides to sell Joey to help pay off some debts. Though Albert is unable to stop the sale, he promises Joey that they will be together again one day.
Joey is then taken over to France as the mount for Capt. Nicholls, a kind young cavalryman who has promised to care for him. When Capt. Nicholls is killed in battle, Joey is soon caught up in the war, seeing it from all sides as he continuously changes hands. As Joey faces horror after horror both on and off the battlefield, he wonders if he will ever be safe again.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
Like most people, I became aware of this story after having seen the fantastic play version. It is a short novel that is meant for children, so it is not overly complicated. It is however, a touching story and an eye opener into the true cost of war.
What is great about this novel is that everything is seen through Joey's eyes. In many ways, I feel that our society has become desensitized to the human toll of war. We've read the novels, seen the movies, and watched the news reports and in some ways none of it seems to truly move us anymore. Most of us are still suckers for animals though, and seeing the horror that these animals went through certainly touches our hearts. Those of us who can sit dry-eyed through one war movie may find ourselves crying over the death of Topthorn. The use of horses as the main characters ironically brings the human element back to the story and opens up our feelings for all of those who suffer during war.
The other great thing about seeing the war through Joey's eyes is that there are no good sides and bad sides. Joey changes hands constantly during the war and he experiences kindness and hatred on both sides. Morpugo never uses a person's uniform to define their character. Instead, we judge them only by their treatment of the horses and in this we see that it is not one's nationality or political stance that makes one good or bad, but rather it is how well we live with those around us. One of my favorite parts of the stories was when Joey was living with the young French girl Emilie and her grandfather. Her sweetness and kindness in the face of all of her struggles was inspiring in and of itself.
If you are looking for a novel to help introduce your children to the realities of war, this is a good one. It is a touching look at human interaction and a fitting tribute to the animals whose lives were lost in serving mankind.
There are two ways to see Joey and Albert's story brought to life. The first is the award winning stage adaptation. I was lucky enough to see this in London and it is a great production. The hand puppets used to create the horses were phenomenal and by the end of the show you have forgotten that they are not real. The story is wonderfully acted and the music is hauntingly beautiful. The play is now being performed in many cities around the world, so be sure to see it if you get the chance.
The second is the 2011 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though to me it wasn't as good as the stage play, it is still a decent adaptation, beautifully shot in Dartmoor, Devon. Definitely worth seeing.