A "bad lad" combines a passion for horses and music and makes good.
An unnamed protagonist tells his early life story in retrospect for his grandchildren. Born at the end of World War II, never knowing his father, a young boy "no good at anything the teachers wanted me to be good at" learns to play drums under the eye of his only kind teacher. Nevertheless, he falls into worse and worse company, until he becomes a petty thief and then, by age 16, a serious one. Eventually caught, he's sent for a year to a Borstal, a British prison designed to rehabilitate young offenders. He's attracted to the prison's horse farm mostly because the head man plays radio music there, but he soon learns to love the horses, too, particularly an abused young horse named Dombey, with whom he forms a bond. In short order Dombey is sold, the boy's mentor disappears, and the boy is discharged onto the street, where he eventually becomes a soldier and reunites with Dombey. Morpurgo's gently elegant prose makes this slim story flow effortlessly, but there's not much action, and the narrative structure creates a storytelling effect that puts readers at a remove. It reads more like a short story than a novel, even when embellished by Foreman's ink-and-wash illustrations and a 10-page afterward describing the Borstal system and Suffolk Punch horses.
A smooth story for horse-mad readers, but it’s unlikely to find a much larger audience than that. (Historical fiction. 10-12)