War Horse is typical Morpuro - simple, unadorned writing for children interested in a good animal story.
War Horse tells the story of Joey, a red bay, in the voice of the now famous horse. Joey is bought as a "gangling, leggy colt", a mere six months old, by Albert's father. He won a bidding war with Farmer Easton, with whom he has had fights over fencing between their adjoining land. Joey settles into life on the farm with thirteen year old Albert Narracott, the young lad who loves him and trains him up. The old mare, Zoey, who is also a working horse, helps Joey adapt to his new life on the Narracott farm. Gradually Joey comes to trust and love Albert and his gentle manner.
But Albert is stunned when his father, in order to pay the mortgage on the farm, sells Joey to the British Calvary at the start of World War I. What follows are the adventures of this beautiful horse during the Great War, first for the British, and then for the Germans. After a disastrous British Calvary charge in which there are only two survivors, Joey and Topthorn, a large, black stallion. Joey and Topthorn are friends who trained together in the Calvary and now they find themselves doing ambulance duty for the Germans and eventually working at pulling the guns for the German artillery. The war takes its toll, not just on the humans but the many horses who are worked to their deaths. After the sudden death of Topthorn, Joey cannot take anymore and flees from the battlefield in terror. Joey ends up trapped in the mud and wire of no man's land where he is saved by the joint efforts of the German and British soldiers. Unlike the movie version, in the book, Joey's reuniting with Albert is much less dramatic, though no less emotional. For Albert has joined the Veterinary Corps as a verterinary orderlie in the hopes of finding his beloved horse. And find him, he did. In this aspect the book is very different from the movie where Albert is a member of the British infantry who leads a charge across no-man's land, only to be gassed.
Readers will find the book very different from the movie of the same name. In fact, they will come to appreciate the creative genius of Steven Spielberg who brought the story to life on the cinematic screen. The essence of the story is the same, but much enhanced by the brilliant cinematography, excellent dramatization of some of the events in the book and a good script. This is one of those rare times when the movie really is better than the book. This is due in part to ability of cinema to portray the horrors of war, and the relationship between a man and his horse in a more visual and appealing way.
Farm Boy, the sequel to War Horse is due to be published in March 2012. In this follow up, Albert's son is now an old man who reminisces about his war-hero father, life on the farm and their horses, Joey and Zoey.
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
New York: Scholastic Press 2007 (1982)