Michael Morpurgo – WarHorse

21Feb09

I don’t know why I picked up this book. It might have been because I’ve got The Butterfly Lion and Private Peaceful on my reading list. It might be because it was the only book that looked tempting at Waterstones the other day (and I couldn’t find a copy of The Great Gatsby – the book I actually wanted to purchase). I don’t know – but, I picked it up, and silently cursed myself, for… the last couple of times I’ve picked up a book without reading any reviews, I’ve regretted it (Suspicions of Mr. Whicher being a prime example). But, this book ended up restoring my faith in impulsive book buying.

The gist at the back of the book only lets you know that it’s a story of “truest of friendships in the worst of wars”. What it doesn’t tell you is, the book is written in first person, and the protagonist is a horse. Does the title of the book give it away? Maybe so – but, frankly speaking, it wasn’t what I expected when I started reading the book, and for a moment I despaired – I mean, not every author is like Sewell, who succeeded in making the story of Black Beauty one of the most loved horse-stories ever. I was prepared for a painstakingly unimaginative pathetic fallacy, where the story has been done in a gazillion other equine-books. But… like I’ve already indicated: the book was a pleasant surprise.

The book follows the story of Joey, a half-thoroughbred, who was bought by a drunk farmer during an auction, only to outsmart one of his rivals. However, the farmer’s son seems to be the diametric opposite, and trains the horse with love and care, and surely enough, the horse reciprocate the feelings:

They (father and son) stood together at the stable door. I noticed with infinite pride and pleasure that my Albert was already taller than his father, whose face was drawn and lined with pain.

One does wonder why on earth they’re training a half-thoroughbred to be a plough-horse, but there you have it.

War (World War I) is on the verge of breaking out, and when it finally does, the farmer sells Joey to the Cavalry, without letting Albert know. This is probably the only time in the book where we see the softer, more remorseful side of the farmer, as he apologizes to Joey, saying he is desperately in need for the money. And so it is – Joey becomes part of the Cavalry, and instantly befriends Topthorn (another Cavalry horse).

The horse, with a penchant for poetic language, describes the horrors and destruction that War brings in its wake, focusing on the emotions, the hardships, the frustrations and the futility of it all, as he sees horses and people dying, guns being fired endlessly, and people (and horses) struggling to find food or warmth in the bitter winter.

Still the guns bellowed out their fury and the ground shook beneath us. We passed the field hospitals and the light guns before trotting over the support trenches to catch our first sight of the battlefield. Desolation and destruction were everywhere. Not a building was left intact. Not a blade of grass grew in the torn and ravaged soil.

As the war progressed,horses were used for transport, as opposed to for charges. When Joey and Topthorn (and their respective riders) are taken as German prisoners of war, the two fine horses end up pulling German ambulances. At that time, they’re kept in stables, for the first time since the war began, and their care-taker is a young girl, who pours affection on them, and always wants the best for them. Again Joey describes why horses like children, their softness and gentleness unparalleled, and allows the reader another glimpse into the psyche of the horse.

The book is heartwarming, and sad, as people die, horses die, and there seems to be a remarkable injustice. But, to be fair, that just about sums up war: where people sometimes lose track of the reasons they’re killing others, and kill only because the other man wears a different color uniform, and speaks a different language. As tragedy strikes, as Joey loses multiple owners, as he’s starved and freezing in the winters, and as he sees his friends losing the will (and strength) to go on, he ends up pushing himself and the reader cannot help but admire the horse: the loyalty, the sense of friendship, and the determination.

This is a story of a horse (surprise!), but more than that, it’s a story of affection, trust, and love – between master and horse, between horses, and between people. The ending stands testimony to that, and somehow, it ends up being a feel-good book, despite the horrors and atrocities detailed and described by the war horse, and war veteran?

Overall, five stars! And yes, I’ll definitely be reading more by Morpurgo.

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