Book Review: ‘War Horse’

Yep, that’s right–just like Harry Potter and the Twilight series, War Horse was a book before it was a movie. Erin McCabe gives it a read.

From Erin:

Ms. McCabe says, “Books are better than movies.”

In honor of the fact that War Horse (the movie) was nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing, I decided to read the book (because that’s how I roll).

This is partly because I believe books are usually better than their movies and one should always read the book first (although doing it the other way around is usually less disappointing.  Case in point: All The Pretty Horses, which is a nonsensical movie but a beautiful, lyrical novel). This is also because having a one year-old son means I haven’t figured out how to watch a movie in a theater and War Horse (the movie) doesn’t come out on DVD until April 3.

War Horse (the book) is a quick read, and Joey, our horse protagonist, is very likeable. How is it that I never knew of War Horse’s existence before the movie came out? This is a travesty because I’m sure I would have loved reading it as a kid (um, obviously, since I enjoyed reading it as an adult).

In any case, the story is told from Joey’s point of view, and this is reason number one why I can safely proclaim that War Horse (the book) is better than War Horse (the movie) without having seen the movie (I admit, I cheated and read a review so I know the movie is told from the point of view of Albert, Joey’s owner before he gets sold to the Army). I mean really, I have only wondered about a million times what stories my horses would tell about their lives before they came to me (and been relieved an equal number of times that they can’t tell me in words exactly what they think). War Horse gives us an idea of what it might be like to hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth (sorry. I couldn’t help myself).

It turns out that horses like to do a lot of telling through internal monologues and don’t do a lot of talking to the other creatures they meet. Which, truth to be told, is pretty much how horses seem to relate to their world. So it might be that my main complaints about War Horse stem from this horse-as-narrator issue, but since it’s never the horse’s fault, it is probably just the shortcomings of the author.

For instance, I would love some more nuanced and detailed development of the minor characters, horse and human alike. We never see Topthorn, the horse who helps Joey get through the worst parts of the war, do any specific brave or touching things, although Joey says he does. We never hear Topthorn have a conversation with Joey, so it’s kind of hard to get to know him. Which brings me to my other gripe: When the novel does include dialog, it feels stilted and informational (as in “[Father] doesn’t even want me to go off bell-ringing once a week.  It’s not reasonable, Mother.”) rather than like real things people who know each other might say (as in “Dad is such a jerk about bell practice!”). And I realize this is me being persnickety, but how is it that Joey understands English, German, and French?! Are my horses just playing dumb? Or is it because Joey is European?

Still, the book shows the importance of friendship and kindness and promises while also illuminating some of the horrors of war (in a way that I think even the most sensitive of readers can handle). It also gives readers a chance to learn a little about what horses in battle might have done and how they might have lived and died. (Seriously, after my horses watch the movie, they should never ever turn their noses up at 70/30 orchard grass/alfalfa hay again). This is devastating stuff if you consider that an estimated 500,000 British-owned horses died during World War I—to say nothing of their fates afterwards—but the book illuminates these facts while still giving us a happy ending (thank god!), albeit awfully dependent on coincidence.

All in all, though, this book deserves its place on the shelf next to Black Beauty and is worth the read, even if you already broke Ms. McCabe’s rules and saw the movie before reading the book.

Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, is forthcoming from Crown Publishing in January 2014. You can learn more at