Private Peaceful: Remembrances Are Real

There’s a sliver of a moon out there, a new moon. I wonder if they’re looking at it back home. Bertha used to howl at the moon, I remember. If I had a coin in my pocket, I’d turn it over and make a wish. When I was young I really believed in all those old tales. I wish I still could believe in them. But I mustn’t think like that. It’s no good wishing for the moon, no good wishing for the impossible. Don’t wish, Tommo. Remember. Remembrances are real.

Capture213Thomas Peaceful (Tommo) — a teenager from an English village — replays his entire life in his head, and uses his memories to stop him from falling asleep. He has eight hours to relish the special moments, recall the painful ones with courage and regret. Charlie Peaceful — his elder brother, his best friend — is going to be shot at 6 AM the next day, for he is pronounced guilty of insubordination and cowardice. The brothers are in the front line, fighting for England in the First World War.

Michael Morpurgo smothers me with a secret as Private Peaceful begins. The Peaceful brothers’s father dies because of Tommo’s carelessness. (Please do not worry. It is not a spoiler.) The little boy grows up with an inexplicable heaviness in his chest, as his family suffers after their father’s untimely demise. He torments himself with the question — if his father didn’t die because of him… the Peaceful family would have been financially comfortable, his mother would not have to work in the ruthless colonel’s house, and they would have always had a place to stay. The secret is too heavy for a five-year-old boy. But I also wonder if a five-year-old boy would feel guilt quite sharply as Tommo.

Their childhood is filled with warm, indelible memories. And both the brothers fall in love with Molly – their schoolmate and their neighbour. Will their love for the same girl cause a crevice between the brothers? Will their friendship be jeopardised by a feeling of inadequacy and jealousy? As Tommo wrestles with the questions, the brothers join the army.

Tommo narrates the story, carefully presenting all sides of Charlie, who many a time appears to be a hero. Charlie is taller and stronger than Tommo. He rescues a hound from her cruel human; he loses his job for saving the dog. He is everything that Tommo wants to be. When the brothers fight in the frontline, and when Tommo is paralysed by the sounds and sights of the war, Charlie is always there to prop him up. Always.

Why does everything go wrong in the brothers’s life? They are perennially mired in problems because of their love for their ‘special’ brother Big Joe is unconditional. Their love for animals is inspiring. (Of course, the characters love animals because the book is written by Michael Morpurgo, who is an ardent animal lover. I loved his War Horse and The Butterfly Lion.) Their love for their family can make them sacrifice everything they love. Even one’s own life.

The brothers often wonder why they are in the war, for they don’t know their enemy. In a striking scene, when a German is caught, Tommo looks at the prisoner and wonders that there is no difference between themselves and their enemies, except their uniform’s colour. The fighting becomes harder for the brothers as they don’t recognise the cause.

Michael Morpurgo, with his prose that is light yet poetic as ever, shows the darkness of the war, the mesmerising beauty of the English villages, and the burning love that is fanned by the Peaceful family.

After Sergeant Hanley and the field punishment, and the way Charlie managed to smile through it all, there isn’t a man in the company who doesn’t look up to him. Being his real brother I could feel I live in his shadow, but I never have and I do not now. I live in his glow.

The book’s postscript mentions that 290 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies, who fought in the First World War, were executed for desertion and cowardice, and two for simply sleeping at their posts. In November 2006, the injustice suffered by the soldiers were recognised, and a conditional pardon was granted.

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War Horse: More Than An Animal

Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse made me break my own rule. Once upon a time, I told myself that I should always acquire the hard-copy of a book, if there’s an animal on the jacket. But, I bought War Horse on Amazon’s Kindle, despite knowing that there is a gorgeous horse on the cover. I relaxed my rule because I didn’t want to wait for a week to read the most celebrated book of Morpurgo. I loved his The Butterfly Lion, and I wanted to start War Horse the very next day. I am so glad that I succumbed to the urge. Because War Horse is the best book I have read this year. It’s official! 🙂

War Horse

Joey — a bay-red horse — is skittish. He is named Joey by his Albert, only because the young boy has another horse called Zoey. Although Joey hates his owner, Albert’s father — whom he refuses to call his master — he begins enjoying Zoey’s company, and Albert’s unconditional love. He slowly forgets his mother, even learns to do a lot of farming work, and lives a calm, yet happy life with Albert. But it’s only short-lived, for Albert’s father sells Joey to the army, as war breaks out. Under the love and care of Captain Nicholls, Joey travels from England to France, and also befriends a stallion called Topthorn. The duo prove their prowess in the war, and become the favourite horses of the soldiers. Together, Joey says, they make a magnificent sight. 🙂

Everything goes downhill, as war worsens. Joey makes many friends, but suffers many a loss, even refuses to let go of his dead friends, and reaches a deplorable state before the war ends. To my relief, Morpurgo throws in a couple of plot-twists that make Joey happy. If you would let me spoil it for you… everything ends well. Sorry! 🙂 (But I still cried, and shed buckets and buckets of tears. That’s the strange thing about life. Even happy things make you weep like a baby.)

Morpurgo is now one of my favourite writers. His commentary on war, which he articulates through Joey is beautiful. Although Joey narrates his story, he doesn’t include his take on war, but only recounts what he sees, hears, and experiences. All the enlightening opinions that are offered are by the very soldiers who fight.

‘I tell you, my friends,’ he said one day. ‘I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It’s the others that are mad, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language? And it’s me they call mad! You two are the only rational creatures I’ve met in this benighted war, and like me the only reason you’re here is because you were brought here. If I had the courage – and I haven’t – we’d take off down this road and never come back. But then they’d shoot me when they caught me and my wife and my children and my mother and my father would have the shame of it on them for ever. As it is, I’m going to live out this war as “mad old Friedrich”, so that I can return again to Schleiden and become Butcher Friedrich that everyone knew and respected before all this mess began.’

‘In an hour, maybe, or two,’ he said. ‘We will be trying our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think he has maybe forgotten why. Goodbye Welshman. We have shown them, haven’t we? We have shown them that any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other. That is all it needs, no?’

In The Butterfly Lion, Morpurgo pours his out for a white lion cub, whom I wanted to adopt. 🙂 In War Horse, his love for horses shines through in every passage. He has now made me question my very existence. What have I been doing with life, if I haven’t befriended a horse ever? 🙂

“Don’t you ever think about anything else except horses, Rudi?” said his companion, keeping his distance. “Three years I’ve known you and not a day goes by without you going on about the wretched creatures. I know you were brought up with them on your farm, but I still can’t understand what it is that you see in them. They are just four legs, a head, and a tail, all controlled by a very little brain that can’t think beyond food and drink.” “How can you say that?” said Rudi. “Just look at him, Karl. Can you not see that he’s something special? This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and especially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe with a creature like this.”

There is something beautiful and heartwarming about people, who talk to animals, who believe that they listen, and who think that their words would comfort them. War Horse is replete with such lovely characters, and it’s such a pleasure to meet each one of them. And, besides all that makes the book special, I’m also in awe of Morpurgo’s extraordinary talent to paint the aftermath of war in a simple, yet moving manner.

War Horse is for you if you love animals. It is for you if you like reading books on war. It’s still for you if you are okay to try something touching and marvellous. 🙂

PS: I can’t wrestle the urge to watch the movie tonight. Have you read the book or watched the movie?

The Butterfly Lion: Delightful

If we are friends on WordPress and Blogspot, by now, you would know that I am a sucker for books on animals. If I were ever asked why I live, I would say with a trace of extreme seriousness in my tone — “To read animal-books!” 😉 I adore animals. And I adore all things animals.

So, I was embarrassed when I realised it took so long for me to discover Michael Morpurgo. I still can’t figure out how I found him. I must have been straying on Goodreads. But, I am supremely glad for having come across the author, and one of his charming books — The Butterfly Lion.

IMG_20151105_233139The children’s book on the heartwarming friendship between a boy called Bertie and his white lion cub moved me. It moved me so much like Dogsbody, The Honest Truth, Charlotte’s Web, Because of Winn-Dixie, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. (…all the animal-books that I have read this year.)

As soon as I finished reading The Butterfly Lion, I stalked Morpurgo on Goodreads, like a madwoman. Because, I fell in love with his work, and I wanted to know more about his other books. That level of stalking would have made him summon police in the real world. 🙂

I knew I was in for a great treat when I read this passage.

“Sun’s come out,” said the old lady, offering me another scone. I took it eagerly. “Always does, you know. It may be difficult to remember sometimes, but there is always sun behind the clouds, and the clouds do go in the end. Honestly.” 

What wise lines! The wisdom that children’s books offer always make me curious. It beats me when I think that many adults’ book try hard to get there, and still fail. Maybe, just maybe, because I revere children’s literature, and I refuse to think about it any other way. 🙂

The Butterfly Lion shouldn’t be dismissed as just a children’s book. Because, A) The prose is beautiful, B) There is also an unexpected twist at the end, which adults might like. I am almost pitching right? 😉

As for the prose, sample these lines:

For the first time in his life Bertie was totally happy. The lion cub was all the brothers and sisters he could ever want, all the friends he could ever need. The two of them would sit side by side on the sofa out on the veranda and watch the great red sun go down over Africa, and Bertie would read him Peter and the Wolf , and at the end he would promise him that he would never let him go off to a zoo and live behind bars like the wolf in the story. And the lion cub would look up at Bertie with trusting amber eyes.

“Why don’t you give him a name?” his mother asked one day.

“Because he doesn’t need one,” replied Bertie. “He’s a lion, not a person. Lions don’t need names.”

The said passage reminded me of my favourite dialogue from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

“What’s your name,’ Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?’
‘Cats don’t have names,’ it said.
‘No?’ said Coraline.
‘No,’ said the cat. ‘Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

I loved so many things about The Butterfly Lion. Besides Bertie and the lion, I loved this ordinary, yet lovely character called Millie, who loves kite-flying and writing letters. And the circus owner, who was kind to the lion. That was a refreshing change. I was expecting him to mistreat the animal. But he treated him “like his son.” However, I still cried a couple of times. But, I cried because The Butterfly Lion genuinely warmed my heart, and thankfully it wasn’t mushy or depressing.

Besides the obvious elements — wildlife, nature, friendship, loyalty, love — The Butterfly Lion has a tinge of metaphysics, which I relished.

Have you read The Butterfly Lion, or any other books of Michael Morpurgo? Let me know your favourites. 🙂