An author of note, for those seeking strong characterization & magic
By Annabel Barker: Literature Columnist
War causes devastation. Soldiers and civilians are maimed and killed. Families are torn apart, spouses are widowed and children are left fatherless or orphaned. Homes and buildings are destroyed.
For those who survive, nothing can go back to how it was before. Sir Michael Morpurgo, the celebrated children’s author, was born in 1943, during the Second World War. Speaking to Booktrust in 2018, Morpurgo explained how, as he grew up, he quickly learned how war had affected the world as he knew it, including his parents’ separation and the death of his maternal uncle in the RAF. The effects and consequences of war and its aftermath are the subject of a number of his books.
One of Morpurgo’s best known stories is his 1982 novel, War Horse, told from the perspective of Joey, the farm horse. War Horse was adapted into a play in 2007 by the National Theatre, in collaboration with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. It was subsequently made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2011.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Joey is purchased by the British Army and shipped out to Flanders. After a charge, in which most of the British cavalry are killed, he is captured by the Germans and put to work hauling artillery, eventually finding himself alone in no-man’s-land and caught up in barbed wire. A British soldier and a German soldier put aside the fact that they are enemies and risk getting shot by snipers to cut him free. His young owner, Albert Narracott, enlists in the army and eventually brings Joey home to the farm. The narrative not only sets out the ordeals experienced by Joey showing how horses suffered, but also bears witness to the horrors of war.
In 2006, another Morpurgo novel revolving around the First World War graced the bookshelves. A feature film version was released in 2012.
When war is declared in 1914, brothers Charlie and Thomas Peaceful sign up to join the army. From that moment, the brothers and their fellow soldiers slowly descend from joviality into shock, upon witnessing the atrocities of the trenches, brutality and death. When Thomas is injured during a battle in no-man’s-land, Charlie stays with him, disobeying a direct order from his sadistic sergeant to flee the area. Charlie is accused of cowardice and insubordination, which results in his being sentenced to death by firing-squad.
The story of the Peaceful brothers reflects the injustice suffered by that of many courageous soldiers, brought upon not only by war itself, but by their own commanding officers.
The Mozart Question
At the 2015 Hay Festival, Morpurgo himself and actress Alison Reid led a dramatic reading from his 2007 novel, accompanied by violinist Daniel Pioro and the string quartet The Storyteller’s Ensemble.
In the novel, journalist Lesley is assigned to interview Paolo Levi, a world famous violinist. She is told she can ask him anything about his life and career as a musician. There is one exception: Paolo refuses to discuss anything related to Mozart. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Paolo’s parents were inmates in a concentration camp and forced to play in the camp orchestra for the Nazis’ entertainment. What is more, most of the music Paolo’s parents were forced to play was composed by none other than Mozart.
The story of Paolo’s parents offers a glimpse into a piece of history that is perhaps lesser known to the public: the existence of concentration camp orchestras.
Kezia, a young Romany girl living in occupied France, realises that Nazi persecution is not limited to members of the Jewish or Romany communities. Her best friend Lorenzo, the titular character of Morpurgo’s 2018 novel, is severely autistic, so is vulnerable to being treated badly simply for being different. Kezia and her family are living near Lorenzo’s family during the Nazi regime and, when Kezia’s parents are captured, Kezia lives with them until their release, which further cements the friendship between the two children, lasting long into adulthood. Everything may be falling apart for Lorenzo and Kezia, but among the Germans, there is a sergeant who shows kindness and does what he can to protect them.
Lorenzo and Kezia’s story simultaneously offers the perspective of those facing adversity and a glimpse of individual humanity among an evil regime.
There are many Morpurgo novels set against the backdrop of war – too many to include all of them in one article. As Morpurgo puts himself: war continues to divide people and change them forever.
MACKAYAN: MICHAEL MORPUGO’S WAR PERSPECTIVESTweet