This book was not what I expected, though if I had seen the movie that came out several years ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised. To be frank, War Horse sounds like a book I would not enjoy, but it was on the required reading list for the middle schoolers I teach this year, so I read it. I was surprised that I not only enjoyed it, but that it was even more like the type of book I wouldn’t like, and still I enjoyed it. To a point, anyways.
War Horse is about a horse. (Strike one for me, personally, but I am aware that many readers love horses, so this is a draw.) It’s also told from the point of view of the horse. (Now we’re on strike two.) It’s WW1 (okay, I’m listening), in England (even better), and a colt goes up on the auction block. Bought by a drunk meanie, he is taken home to a teenage boy who really falls for him and names him Joey. The rest of the short book is a series of whip-fast transitions as Joey is sold to the war effort, changes hands several times, and the boy looks for him.
It’s not fantasy, exactly: the horse isn’t talking and it’s basically realistic except that we can see into the mind of the horse (and the horse understands human language very, very well). Joey and the other horses, are only mildly personified. It makes it interesting, for sure, seeing a war through the eyes of a horse, seeing life through the eyes of a horse. I suppose what it accomplishes, more than learning about horses (though it does some of that) is introduce middle grades readers to the world of warfare in an off-handed way. There’s something innocent and lighthearted about it—which comes from the horse narrator and also a series of kind-hearted characters who are swept up into the war—while there’s also the atrocity, death, and sadness of war. It’s deft. It’s unique. And it is a great book for middle grades for both its gentleness and seriousness, it’s hope and sorrow. I can see why this book was recommended reading and I would recommend it for your middle graders, especially for classroom assignments, and not just because I thought it was good, but because besides teaching both history and character it is the type of book that most middle grades readers will enjoy: about animals, first person, and brief while also using simple, straight-forward language in interesting situations with engaging characters.
Note: There’s a reference to the Light Brigade, so it would be a good time to read “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
“‘S’pose I know her a lot better than I know myself, and I like her a lot better'” (p55).
“He laughed to himself, he said, because if he did not laugh he would cry” (p97).
“…but no man can move a horse that does not wish to be moved, and I did not want to go” (p104).
War Horse was a movie that I remember coming out in 2011 because it did really well at the box office and with reviewers. However, as I have said, it was not the type of story to lure me to the theater. I will be watching it after my son reads it and I’ll review it then. I imagine it’s going to be pretty good.