The Book: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
The Challenge: A book from our Monthly Movie Crush list
I learned a lesson reading this book: never, ever read one gut-wrenching novel immediately after you've finished another gut-wrenching novel. Doing so only results in tears. Consider this a warning.
Anyway, War Horse is a look at the horrors of the First World War through the eyes of a farm horse named Joey. It is almost episodic in nature as Joey is passed through several owners on both sides of the War, giving the reader a look at the introduction of machine guns, trench warfare, tanks, and the various gasses used in the war as well as glimpses into the lives of the men (and horses) who fought and died in it. Emphasis on dying. If Joey gets an owner that isn't Albert, you can be sure that man is toast.
This is a heartfelt anti-war novel, where the reader is shown (rather uniquely when compared to most on the subject) a fairly balanced view of all sides. The soldiers are shown to be regular people with a common humanity caught up in an inhuman conflict, who are, as Joey comments, not malicious by nature, but desperate. Many (like Captain Nicholls, Trooper Warren, "Mad" Friedrich, and even Joey himself) don't even want to be there but stay nonetheless due to a sense of duty to their countries and comrades. There are no glory-seekers in this war, as it is shown to be a decidedly inglorious affair. Here, war is almost its own entity; a muddy, hellish, confusing event where outdated tactics are still used despite the soldiers knowing they wont work (see Captains Nicholls and Stewart's views on cavalry vs machine guns and barbed wire and the subsequent result of their charges) and where once green fields are turned into utter wastelands.
It's not all "death, doom, and despair", though. One of the most heartwarming scenes is when two combatants, one Welsh and one German, crawl out into No-Man's-Land to rescue Joey. When they realize they both want to take the horse, they flip a coin to determine who gets to keep him (the Welshman wins), laugh, comment that they wish all wars were solved as easily, and go their separate ways. Another comes when Albert's regiment bands together to try and save Joey from the auction block. Almost any scene with Albert and Joey count for "heartwarming" in this book. Admittedly, though, these light-within-the-darkness scenes serve mostly to emphasize the brutality of the conflict around the characters.
War Horse is well written, but unrelenting when it comes to "Scenes for which you will need a tissue". Not even the ending is safe, where amid all the homecoming celebrations Joey comments that the real heroes of the war are those who didn't make it back. This is understandable, given the subject matter of the book, but is yet another reason that it is unlikely that I will go and watch the movie adaptation (despite who's in it).