Friday, May 11, 2012

Joey Goes To War

Before Christmas I went into a Barnes & Noble hoping to score a copy of War Horse by Michael Morpurgo for my niece. I figured the movie adaptation was being advertised to death, a Christmas Day opening was planned, I should find a case of the books right by the front door. Nope. While checking out the situation with a sales clerk, I said, "Gee, I thought you'd have this out in a rack because of the movie." She was looking the book up on her computer screen and in that  bored or tired way that sales clerks have when they're doing that sort of thing said, "We had it. I can order you a copy."

I don't recall how I got Rebecca her book. But for the next few months, I kept thinking, Wow. What an opportunity missed. That's an older book that should have sold by the truckload with all the attention it has gotten not just because of the movie, but it's a Broadway show. Come on.

Well, I didn't need to worry about War Horse's sales. According to the book's author, they've gone from a couple of thousand a year to over a million copies total, and it has now been translated into over 40 languages, up from 4 or 5. It looks as if here in the U.S. Scholastic is promoting it for its book fairs.

It may be an odd book in terms of audience, though. The main character is Joey, the war horse, himself. He has a lovely, elegant voice, but the humans around him tend to sound alike. They also often speak in an hate to say it about a fairly grim war story...but, sort of sappy way. Maybe it's because Morpurgo is trying to recreate the speech patterns of another era. Or maybe it's because these people are often talking to or about animals. I have some family members who can be quite cloying when they're talking to or about my mother-in-law's cat. At any rate, the age group that's most interested in animal main characters may not be as interested in war experiences and battle scenes. And the age group that appreciates war narratives may not be crazy about having one told by a horse.

Of course, the fact that a million books have sold probably suggests I'm talking about a nonissue.

World War I was the forgotten twentieth century war for a long time, always existing in World War II's shadow. War Horse's renewed popularity is part of an upswing of interest in the earlier war and the era surrounding it.  A lot of what is portrayed in the book seems historically accurate as far as my knowledge of WWI is concerned. It could be argued that the outdated tactic of sending cavalry and single soldiers across battle fields into machine guns is handled in a pedantic, instructive way, but it did happen. An article on a horse that actually "served" in the war supports the end of Morpurgo's book, which shows the British army selling off its horses in France rather than bringing them back to Britain. I've seen some talk on-line about the book and the movie being sentimental, but at least with the book I think enough characters are killed off to avoid a claim that it glorifies war.

As with a number of children's books that are set in a specific era or time different from our own, I wonder if my knowledge of the events portrayed here helps me to understand the book in a way that younger, less well read readers won't be able to. Do you have to know something about World War I to get this book? Or is the horse main character enough to bring this long ago war to children?

Plot Project: I'm sure some readers would claim that this is a give-a-horse-a-problem plot and keep him from solving it. Poor Joey is at war and needs to survive it with one event after another putting him at risk. I would argue, though, that this is a plot that is definitely built around a disturbance to a character's world. Joey was a farm horse, and his world is disturbed when he is sold to the army. From there the plot just plunges into battle.

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