Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Perfect Horse

The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis- Elizabeth Letts
Ballantine Books
Release Date: August 23, 2016

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: In the chaotic last days of the war a small troop of battle-weary American soldiers captures a German spy and makes an astonishing find—his briefcase is empty but for photos of beautiful white horses that have been stolen and kept on a secret farm behind enemy lines. Hitler has stockpiled the world’s finest purebreds in order to breed the perfect military machine—an equine master race. But with the starving Russian army closing in, the animals are in imminent danger of being slaughtered for food.
With only hours to spare, one of the Army’s last great cavalrymen, American colonel Hank Reed, makes a bold decision—with General George Patton’s blessing—to mount a covert rescue operation. Racing against time, Reed’s small but determined force of soldiers, aided by several turncoat Germans, steals across enemy lines in a last-ditch effort to save the horses.

The Perfect Horse tells the little known story of some of Europe's most priceless horses during World War II.  This story of the Lipizzaner of Austria's Spanish Riding School and prized Arabians from Poland, Yugoslavia, and other European countries will be compared to the story of the Monuments Men, saving priceless art and cultural treasures being stolen and hoarded by the Nazis.  And the comparison is apt. These horses were taken to be part of a eugenics program to breed the "perfect" German warhorse.  The trials of the horses and their caretakers during the war cumulated during the final days of the war.  Between the Germans, the Americans, and the Russians, these amazing animals and the traditions they represented were placed in mortal peril.  

The book gives an overview of the history and importance of these horses in Europe, especially the Lipizzaner in Austria; the dangers they faced throughout the war; and an interesting history of the American cavalry that helps to explain the attitudes of both individual Americans and the Army in general during and after the war in reference to the horses.  Letts does a fantastic job of bringing some of the key players to life: Alois Podhajsky, an Olympian in charge of Austria's Spanish Riding School; Colonel Hank Reed, one of the last real 'horsemen' of the U.S. calvary, German army veterinarian Rudolph Lessing, and more-all people instrumental in saving the horses.  

While The Perfect Horse starts off a little slow, and Letts has a tendency to repeat herself more than I thought necessary as well as veer off into unnecessary and dramatic emotional wanderings ("will this ever happen?", "what is happening back home?") that detracted a little for me, when the war comes to its final days and timing is of the essence to save the horses, it was fast paced, exciting and dramatic.  The race for horse lovers from multiple countries to come together and save these amazing animals was both riveting and dramatic.  

The story of these horses reminds the reader that even in (or perhaps especially in) such huge conflicts as a world war, it is in the small acts of courage and kindness that people regain their humanity, and perhaps rediscover what they fight for.  

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.

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