One-Minute Book Reviews

January 1, 2012

‘War Horse,’ Michael Morpurgo’s Anti-War Novel for Ages 8–12

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:07 pm
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A farm horse adapts to life as a cavalry mount and more in World War I

War Horse. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic, 165 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

War Horse is narrated by a horse that has mastered the use of the semicolon. If you can accept this, you will probably have no trouble believing the rest of his adventures, which begin when a Devon farmer sells him to a British officer in World War I and which take him to the Western Front, where he serves as a cavalry mount and a hauler of guns and carts full of wounded soldiers and ammunition.

Joey has a white cross on his reddish brown forehead and bears his suffering with the saintliness that the mark implies. He gallops through so many odds-defying escapes that the suspense depends less on whether he will survive than on whether he will again see Albert Narracott, the farmer’s son who misses him back in England.

Michael Morpurgo invests this plot with an anti-war message uncluttered by the ambiguities that combat involves. He gives no sense that some ideals are worth fighting for or that World War I had causes beyond “some old duke that’s been shot somewhere.” After being commandeered by Germans in France, Joey falls under the care of a soldier known as Crazy Old Friedrich, who insists that he is “the only sane man” in his regiment:

“It’s the others who are crazy, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not know why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language. And it’s me they call crazy!”

Adults may hear a faint echo of Catch-22 and  All Quiet on the Western Front in the observations of Friedrich and others. But preteens who haven’t read those books are likely to find the ideas in War Horse fresh and expressed in terms they can understand. And the historical setting of the novel offers 8-to-12-year-olds an appealing change from the contemporary realism and paranormal fantasy more often pitched to them.

Like Black Beauty, War Horse takes the form of an interior monologue by a beloved English horse whose hardships reveal a purity of spirit. Joey has a gentle nature and treats his companions better than many characters in recent children’s fiction treat their classmates. His friends, human and equine, repay his kindness and support the ageless theme of War Horse: People and animals comfort each other amid the sorrows of war. For all of Joey’s valor in combat, the title of his story has an ironic aspect. War Horse could have been called Peace Horse.

Best line: No. 1: “Within minutes the mist began to clear away and I saw for the first time that I stood in a wide corridor of mud, a wasted, shattered landscape between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me. … This was what the soldiers called ‘no-man’s-land.’”

Worst line: “For just a few short moments, we moved forward at the trot as we had done in training.” All moments are short.

Recommendation: The direct, conversational writing style of War Horse lends itself well to reading aloud.

About the author: Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate in England.

Published: 1982 (first UK edition), 1910 (Scholastic paperback edition).

Links for the movie version: Watch the trailer and see an interactive map of the trip Joey takes in the film.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 5, 2008

Do Owners Destroy Good Horses by Running Them in the Kentucky Derby Too Soon? (Quote of the Day / Carol Flake)

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:28 pm
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Long before Eight Belles broke two ankles and was euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs on Saturday, journalist Carol Flake explored the dark side of the Kentucky Derby in Tarnished Crown: The Quest for a Racetrack Champion (Doubleday, 1987). Flake wrote that every year, some owners and trainers develop “Derby Fever Syndrome,” which impairs their judgment about the readiness of their horses for the race:

“I had once asked [trainer] John Veitch why so many trainers overestimated the ability of their horses. ‘It clouds your judgment, the hype and excitement of being able to say you ran a horse in the Derby,’ he said. ‘Every year about half the horses shouldn’t be there. There’s no sense destroying a useful horse by running him before he’s ready. You’ve got to have seasoning. It’s not like a boxer who’s fought nothing but pugs but who doesn’t know what it is to fight a real man.

“’People get a high on a horse. They say, ‘I’ve got a world beater.’ The problem is, they’ve never been around a good horse before. If you’ve never drunk champagne, you might think Ripple tastes just as good.'”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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