When I began Michael Morpurgo's children's book War Horse, I didn't know what to think. Though I love historical fiction, animal stories were never at the top of my reading list, and I haven't read a children's book since ... well, since I was child as far as I can remember. Though the book was much-praised even before Steven Spielberg filmed it in 2011, somehow it had flown under my radar, and frankly, telling the story of World War I from the viewpoint of a horse sounded to me like a cheap gimmick.
The first few chapters, which introduced the characters and established the setting, were competent enough. Joey, a handsome red bay with a white cross on his forehead, was plucked from the Devon countryside and put into the service of the British army when the war began in 1914. He missed the boy he had come to love on the farm, and boy missed him, even going so far as to volunteer for service (which he was not old enough to do) so he could stay with Joey. So far, the book had been entertaining but unexceptional. But later, when it became clear that Joey would not spend the whole war in the same army did I realize what Morpurgo was up to. Looking at World War I through the eyes of a horse was definitely not just a gimmick.
Horses, you see, are allowed to switch armies. Men are not -- or, to put it mildly, if they do, it's extremely frowned upon. But no one disputed that Joey could carry a rider or pull a cart as well for the British and for the Germans. In the world of horses, there were no British and Germans, no Belgians or Frenchmen, no nations at all. There were only kind people and cruel people, friendly horses and selfish horses. Joey's world was not a utopia -- it still contained cruelty and avarice, pain and death -- but there weren't as many things dividing horses from other horses, or even horses from men, as there were things dividing men from men, and the horses saw no point in the gigantic waste of life exploding all around them.
Once in a great while, an unusual man would came along who saw things as the horses did. My favorite character was a bit player whose time on stage only lasted a chapter or two. Morpurgo described him as a stubborn old German soldier who talked to himself and was given the jobs no one else wanted. His compatriots thought he was nuts and named him "Crazy Old Friedrich." But the horses loved him, and he loved them. At one point, he told them, "I tell you, my friends, I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It's the others who are crazy, but they don't know it. They fight a war and they don't know what for. Isn't that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language. And it's me they call crazy!"
By the time I'd finished War Horse, I decided it was a lot more than the story of World War I through the eyes of a horse. In fact, it was only barely a story about horses. It really was a story about people, and particularly about those things all humans have in our hearts -- the desire to be loved, an appreciation of kindness, and the ability to recognize our common humanity. It's a pity that took Joey to point those things out. You shouldn't have to be horse to understand.