Joey Survives

Feb 9, 2018

Paintings such as this one of Stonewall Jackson were commonly produced by gentleman officers. Perhaps the one of Joey painted by Captain Nicholls was similar.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Howdy, I am Michael Grauer from Canyon, Texas,

Written in the spirit of Anna Sewell’s masterpiece of animal literature, Black Beauty, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse tells the story of a “spindly half-Thoroughbred” horse, Joey, who is raised on an English farm and is “drafted” into service by the British Army to serve in World War I and his struggles to survive. 

Having seen the 2011 Steven Spielberg-produced dramatic film, War Horse, ostensibly based on this book, I was immediately struck by not only the changes in the story from the book to screen, but mainly by the fact that Morpurgo’s War Horse is a children’s book, aimed at juvenile audiences.  The copy I read from contained a brief interview with the author, primarily containing questions and answers about his writing methods.  I especially appreciated his answer to the question, “How old are you?” He replied, “I’m very young, I’m 64 years young.”  He also writes longhand on his bed, with pillows piled all around him with his “exercise book on his knees.”

Written in the first person narrative of Joey himself, he describes his life from a “gangly, leggy colt” of six months when he is purchased by a farmer after seeing his half Irish draft horse mother sold within minutes and whisked out of the horse sale ring before he knew what was happening.  His wild eye and red color, he believed, kept the farmers haggling over his purchase price until bought for three guineas (about Five dollars in today’s money) by a rough-handed farmer.  The farmer dealt with his panic over the separation from his mother roughly and dragged him home.  Befriended by the family’s draft horse, Zoey, he is given the name Joey, to match her.

Also befriended by the farmer’s son, Albert, Zoey learns to be a saddle horse, then is broken to harness.  Unbeknownst to Albert and due to financial woes, Albert’s father sells Joey to a British Army officer, Captain James Nicholls, who sees the promise in the young horse and makes him his private mount.  Despite Albert’s pleas, Joey becomes a cavalry horse and is trained by a rough-handed ex-jockey.  Again, Joey is befriended by another horse, Topthorn, who remains steadfast with him for most of the War. 

Captain Nicholls sketches Joey and eventually paints his portrait (more about that later).  Captain Nicholls also recognizes that when he and Joey join the fighting already underway in France, that cavalry stands no chance:  “I tell you Joey, one machine gun operated right could wipe out an entire squadron of the best cavalry in the world … and none of them seem to remember that.”  In their first fight together, that is exactly what happens as Captain Nicholls is killed but Joey survives. 

Joey and Topthorn are eventually captured by the Germans where they are showered with kindnesses before being harnessed to carts to bear the wounded from the front.  Housed at a French farm Joey remarks “If it is possible to be happy in the middle of a nightmare, then Topthorn and I were happy that summer.”  Befriended by a frail French farm girl, Emilie, whose parents had been killed in the War, and her grandfather, the horses lived happily on the farm through the summer, fall, and winter, but were conscripted to pull heavy guns the following spring by German artillery officers.  The strain eventually is too much for Topthorn who succumbs in the mud and the blood of the front.

Abandoned again, and badly wounded, Joey finds himself in No Man’s Land where a coin toss between British and German soldiers, he is reunited with the British Army.  Taken to a veterinary clinic, his prognosis is dire when he is reunited with his Albert.  Albert nurses him back to health through patience, only to find he will not be taken back to England at War’s end but will be auctioned.  None other than Emilie’s grandfather buys Joey at auction in honor of his granddaughter who did not survive the War.  The grandfather tells Albert a farmer never gives anything away and sells Joey to Albert for one penny, which he tells Albert he “shall treasure it always.”

The author’s note at the beginning of War Horse, tells of a portrait of a horse, Joey, by British Army officer Captain James Nicholls, which hangs in the village hall below the clock.  Clearly, this is the author’s inspiration, fictional or not.

Treasure this book always as its message about the bonds of friendship that when challenged can survive tragedy and trials and even death.  And the gruesomeness of the Great War is not hidden from the children who read this book, but instead, they can be inspired by the triumph of spirit in the worst of times.

I’m Michael Grauer for the Radio Readers Book Club.