A Book for Remembrance Day — War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

War_HorseToday I’m sharing a book that’s a little different from those I usually share. Since today is November 11, observed here in Canada as Remembrance Day and in the United States as Veterans Day, I wanted to share something that suited the day.

Title: War Horse

Author: Michael Morpurgo

Publisher: London: Egmont, 1982 (there are many editions of this book)

Genre: Middle Grade fiction

Audience Age: 10 and up

Themes/topics: World War I, horses in war, friendship, bravery

Opening Sentences: My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head. But I remember well enough the day of the horse sale. The terror of it stayed with me all my life.

Synopsis: This book is written from the horse’s perspective, in first person. In that, it reminded me of the classic Black Beauty – although there are far fewer happy, bucolic scenes in this book.

This is a powerfully moving story of a horse, Joey, who bonds with a young English farm boy, but then is taken away by the army, as their need for horses in the early days of World War I was great.

The magnificent and beautiful horse is first trained as a cavalry mount – but it is soon discovered that over in France, in the midst of the mud and horror of the trenches, and facing the power of machine guns and other such weaponry, the cavalry is no longer effective.

Joey begins a very different life, pulling an ambulance cart, bringing the wounded back behind the front lines. Then he is commandeered to pull a gun, along with other horses ill suited to the task.

He does what is necessary, to the best of his ability. Through it all, he keeps looking for his boy, who promised him he would join up when he was old enough, and would find the horse.

This helps keep Joey going – but then Joey and his regiment are taken as prisoners of war, and his life changes again. There is little food, no shelter, and much hardship for the men and for the horses.

This wrenching story shows the reality of war without making it too difficult for readers – and there are some moments of beauty as well. There is also always hope, as Joey keeps looking for his boy… and, as it turns out, his boy is looking for him. Will they find each other before it’s too late?

Michael Morpurgo is a master storyteller, and this book has been greatly acclaimed, not just as a book for children, but for all ages. It has been made into a stage play, and a motion picture, both of which have won accolades.

The stage play won numerous awards, including five Tony Awards in 2011: Best Play, Best Direction of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Play, and Best Sound Design of a Play (the designation “of a play” distinguishes these awards from the ones given for the same categories in musicals).

In 2012, the movie was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, and although it did not win in any of its categories, still that shows that the film was considered worthy of consideration.

The stage play is worthy of further comment. It might, at first, seem impossible to stage a dramatization of a novel that features a horse in the key role. It would be tricky, if not impossible, to have a real horse on stage.

That seeming impossibility didn’t stop the creative team behind this production, however. Instead of a real horse, they engaged the creativity of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, who created and brought to life some amazing, intricate, full-size horse puppets.

Don’t let the word “puppet” fool you – these horses are marvels of artistry and engineering. They have to be seen to be believed.

If, like me, you’re unable to catch one of the final performances of War Horse in London’s West End (it has been extended one final time, with the run ending on March 12, 2016) then I hope you will spend some time poring over the amazing website.

Start by clicking “Play the Trailer” on the War Horse on Stage website, but be prepared to stay on the website for quite a while, exploring it all.

For more about the book, you can go to the author’s website.

And on this day of Remembrance honoring the people – and animals – who sacrificed so much for us and for our world, please take a moment in silence to remember them.

Availability: War Horse, the book, is readily available, as is the DVD of the movie (or find the movie on iTunes). The stage play is recommended for ages 10 and up. The movie is rated PG-13.

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