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War Horse - Making the Old New Again


I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little about this month’s Radio Readers Book Club selection, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. This spring’s Book Club theme is World War 1, but we decided to forego the novels on the conflict that you might have expected us to select.

You won’t find Hemingway or Ford Madox Ford or Erich Maria Remarque on our reading list. That’s mostly because anyone who’s interested in fictional recounting of the Great War has likely already read All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms.

Instead, we attempted to view the conflict through different lenses as it were. We selected Burning Beethoven, a nonfiction account of how the United States tried to eradicate German culture during the Great War. We also selected A Son at the Front, Edith Wharton’s anti-war novel that contains no battle scenes, but instead focuses on the worried families left behind when their sons marched off to war. And finally, we chose this book, War Horse, a children’s novel that shows the war from the point of view of one of the hundreds of thousands of horses who were a part of the war effort on both sides.

When I was studying English at West Texas A&M University, we learned about a technique that novelists use called de-familiarization. The idea behind de-familarization is that writers will attempt to present something familiar to the reader in a new and strange way. The term, which in Russian is ostranenie (??????????), was coined during World War I by the literary critic Victor Shklovsky, one of the leading figures in a major movement in literary criticism called Russian Formalism.

When Shklovsky labeled the idea of de-familiarization, one of the examples he used was from a story by Leo Tolstoy called “Kholstomer.” The narrator of Tolstoy’s story, as Shklovsky noted, “is a horse, and it is the horse’s point of view (rather than a person’s) that makes the content of the story seem unfamiliar.”  

I wonder if Michael Morpurgo was thinking of Tolstoy’s story as he wrote War Horse. If he wasn’t, Morpurgo was certainly going after the same effect as the Russian master. The narrator of War Horse, a shining steed named Joey, is able at times to move through the war almost unseen. We witness the conflict in various stages, and throughout the war, Joey is ridden and owned by a number of different characters, from abusive soldiers to kind officers to a young girl. Through his technique of defamiliarization, Morpurgo is thus able to separate the reader from an event that has been rendered frequently in literature, and thus he is able to shed some kind of new light on the war. The technique is largely successful, though I wonder if Morpurgo wasn’t hamstrung by the conventions of middle-grade fiction.

Of all the wars of the twentieth century, the harsh truths of World War I surely make one of the least suitable for children. This was a conflict that unleashed upon a continent widespread influenza, typhus, trench foot and malaria. The war introduced mustard gas to the world. Rape was rampant during the Great War. I certainly understand Morpurgo’s sanitized version of the Great War, given his audience, and that cleanliness was carried forward to Steven Spielberg’s film version. But I also couldn’t help wondering what a modern Leo Tolstoy would have done with the idea. Perhaps we might be able to view the horrors of this unconscionable war with more detachment if we were able to read them from the perspective of a horse.

Nevertheless, this is a quick read and a surprisingly enjoyable one, given the subject matter. Morpurgo successfully sends us trotting and sloshing across a war-torn continent and delivers us back home, and we are better for it. I hope you’ll join me in reading Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, a ripping yarn about soldiers and horses and war. It’s this month’s selection, for the Radio Readers book club. I’m Jonathan Baker.