The title character -- and first-person narrator -- is Joey, a half-thoroughbred stallion raised by a farmboy named Albert in Dorset. Albert's father bought Joey as a colt, but took against him for some reason, so as soon as World War I begins he sells him to the British Army without Albert's knowledge. Albert vows to join up as soon as he can and find Joey in France.
The rest of the novel follows Joey into France, where he meets a boon companion named Topthorn who helps him endure trench warfare. Joey and Topthorn spend some time with the German Army before a tragic event brings Joey nearly to death's door. (Note nearly -- I took comfort from the fact that since Joey was telling the story he was going to make it!) Many men and horses die, but Morpurgo's light touch describes these events for young readers so they can access the tragedy without being overwhelmed by it. I might go so far and recommend it for gentle readers -- well maybe not that far -- but it's definitely not for those who crave bloodthirsty adventure.
John Keating narrates the novel. I've listened to him read several times (check out the links via the Audiobook Jukebox), and don't count him among my favorite narrators. I found his interpretation of Joey to be almost subdued -- he reads in an overly soothing, almost lulling manner that kept me, I think, from fully connecting with him emotionally. Thus my lack of tears? I wonder. Occasionally I felt he was reading so deliberately as if he thought I were slightly dim and couldn't really understand. Part of me thinks he's reading this way because he's reading for children; if so that bugs me and he shouldn't.
His delivery would get livelier when voicing the human characters -- young Albert is alert and gregarious, an enthusiastic Scots cavalryman delights in his horses, and a German soldier who braves No Man's Land is portrayed as hearty and humorous. Keating can create characters with accents and there's plenty to go around here -- English officers and enlisted men, Welsh, German, French. He's a capable reader, but his narration doesn't transport.
Which is too bad for this novel, I think. Morpurgo packs some big ideas into his short story: the love of humans and animals, the savagery of war, the lack of differences between combatants, the responsibility that humans have to domesticated animals. It's epic in a way -- full of triumph and loss. But Keating's narration stays small -- he's just telling you a story about a boy and his horse.
This is particularly disappointing when I read about the emotional impact of the stage play. (Audiobook convergence note: Narrator Alyssa Bresnahan is in the cast of the play.) Also, this novel is nearly 30 years old -- how cool is it that a stage play caused someone to dig deep into the backlist and think about an audiobook!
[This image from Wikimedia Commons is of a 1915 postcard by Fred C. Palmer.]
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Narrated by John Keating
Scholastic Audiobooks, 2010. 4:04