Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Book Review Club - The War Horse

The War Horse 
Michael Morpurgo
Middle grade

I'm coming a little late to the book review club this week. I fell into a small rip the time-space continuum descended and have been fighting my way back out ever since. Or, my kids started school on Tuesday and I have been a day behind the whole week. I like the first explanation a lot better. It's far more creative, which is the beauty of fiction, right? But because I gave you the fiction first, you'll always wonder which is really true.

The War Horse starts with the same ingenious switch up. Morpurgo blurs the lines between fiction and fact by beginning with an Author's Note (seeming reality) that reveals that the author came upon a painting in the old school now used for the village town hall of a horse. A few, very few remaining village inhabitants know the real story behind the painting of the enigmatic horse and they shared it with the author.

This sort of tool snares in a happy web of fictive reality that I seldom am ever able to truly escape. Same thing happened when I read Memoirs of a Geisha, which also begins with a prologue from the Geisha. It took me years to accept the fact that that was fiction, even though I knew the author was a man. I'd bet many other readers fall under the same spell. We want to take the leap of faith and fall headfirst into the fictive dream.

This one is well worth leaping into. The basic story line is of a boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey, and all Albert will do to be reunited with Joey when he is sold to the British military at the start of World War I. This is ultimately a book about love, but the setting is predominantly World War I. Morpurgo does an excellent job of introducing young readers to the horrors of the war without making it overwhelming. He doesn't linger on any one character for a particularly long time. The story is a collection of well-seamed vignettes of all the people who come into Joey's life during the war (spoiler alert!) and ultimately die after caring for him. Morpurgo also allows the main protagonist and the horse to live. Surrounded by so many deaths, the "love conquers all" quality of that relationship gives the book the upbeat ending necessary to balance out the morbid reality of the war setting.

If you're tempted to take young readers to see the movie version - which I did with my 10 and 12 year olds (both girls) - my only suggestion would be to read the book first. Not because the book is better - Spielberg/Curtis stay lovingly true to Morpurgo's storyline - but because the reader is bound by his/her imagination when she reads. In other words, the atrocities of World War I that happen in the story are only as scary as the reader's mind can make them. That's the wonderful safety valve of reading over film. Film relies on someone else's imagination. In this case, that of an adult's vs. a child's, which is inevitably able to go further and imagine more and more graphically than a child's. Nevertheless, Spielberg does an excellent job of walking the line between showing the horrors and showing so much it will scar a young audience. A lot of the really awful events happen off screen, behind a turning windmill (execution of two underage German soldiers who run off with Joey and another horse to escape certain death on the front), or just after a well-placed scene ending (effects of gas on Albert's friend). Nevertheless, my ten year old leaned over to me about halfway through and said, "Mom, this is film is Marley and Me a million times worse."

Still, this is a tale incredibly well-written that is worth reading and sharing. Because of the enduring love of the boy for his horse and vice versa, the reader can weather the setting and inadvertently learn something about it while falling deeply in love with Joey and Albert.

Other great New Year's reads are just a click away at Barrie Summy's website. Enjoy 2012 and all the adventures that await both real and imagined.