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.

April 6, 2009

A Biographer Recalls America’s Entry Into World War I on April 6, 1917, and the Birth of the Song ‘Over There’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:49 pm
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Given the recent study that found that 10 percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, it’s likely that few could identify April 6 as the day the U.S. entered World War I. George M. Cohan wrote the most famous song about that war, and biographer John McCabe remembers its origins in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war against Germany, and show business true to its traditions prepared at once for entertainment service. On that day, Cohan was in his Manhattan apartment. Contrary to a press agent’s story … of Cohan’s writing ‘Over There’ on the back of an envelope on his way into the city that morning from Great Neck, the song was actually written in New York City. April 6 was a Friday and Cohan, like most Americans, took the news of our entry to the war in a mood of spirited determination that all would eventually be well. He pondered Wilson’s announcement during his Saturday duties at the office, and that evening shut himself up in his study.

“Cohan’s daughter, Mary, to this day retains the vividest memory of the following morning. ‘Early that Sunday,’ she says, ‘Dad called us all together – we kids, and my mother. He said that he had finished a new song and he wanted to sing it for us. So we all sat down and waited expectantly because we always loved to hear him sing. He put a big tin pan from the kitchen on his head, used a broom for a gun on this shoulder, and he started to mark time like a soldier … “

As his daughter recalled it to McCabe, Cohan then sang the song that included the famous lines: “Over there, over there, / Send the word, send the word over there, / That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, / The drums rum-tumming everywhere.”

McCabe goes on:

“’Over There’ became not only the most popular song of World War I but the manifestation of a perdurable American theme as well. As Cohan often said, he had simply dramatized a bugle call, but in its incisive notes and words he had also delineated something elemental in the American character – the euphoric confidence that the coming of the Yanks was the march of the good guys to effect infamy’s overthrow.”

You can listen to three versions of Cohan’s “Over There” for free on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm, including a bilingual English-French recording by Enrico Caruso. To listen to Caruso or another artist singing “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 17, 2009

‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ (Quote of the Day / W. B. Yeats)

Members of an isolated British reading group write letters about their favorite books in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 2008), a bestselling novel set mainly on a Channel Island in 1946. But one character rages against William Butler Yeats, the Irish Nobel laureate. The complaint: Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 and said in its introduction that he had left out all the great World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, because

“ … passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.”

This well-known quote was controversial from the start. But it suggests how much poetry has changed: Many recent collections, such as Frances Richey’s The Warrior and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, include poems that involve “passive suffering.”

What do you think of the change? Does poetry need less passive suffering and more active engagement with life? Or are modern poets proving that Yeats was wrong?

Read Yeats’s full quote and more on The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html.

A review of and reading group guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/. A review of The Warrior was posted on July 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/ and of Elegy on March 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/.

nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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