As I wrote when I started reading this book, I knew the outlines of the history. I knew how the story ended, and therefore I didn't have to fear tragedy. In anticipation of light, engaging read, I started turning the digital pages.
This turned out to be no child's breezy account of a miraculous rescue. I had never seen the Disney movie -- had in fact more or less forgotten that there ever was one -- and I had never read Marguerite Henry's novel about the Lipizzan horses, so I was relying on the brief overview provided in her Album of Horses, which I still have.
The title is somewhat misleading, since author Letts never really addresses the perfection of any of the horses mentioned. So set that whole notion aside. The tale is more about the perfect horror of war.
The white stallions of the renowned Spanish Riding School of Vienna were not the only victims. There were also the brood mares whose foals grew up to be the famed performers, and thousands upon thousands of other pedigreed horses in Europe, among them the Arabians of Poland. All became victims, in one way or another, of the war. A very precious few would survive. That any of them did was a testament to luck and the steadfast determination of a very small group of men, some of whom would otherwise be enemies.
This wasn't an easy book to read; not all the horses survived, and the horrors they endured were, to put it simply, inhuman. No, not inhumane. One seriously wonders how beings that call themselves human could behave with such wanton cruelty.
There is also the suspense. Even knowing more or less how the book ends, I felt the adrenaline rush of tension.
But it's powerfully written, with expansive portraits of the soldiers, riders, veterinarians, and horse-humanitarians involved. Just be sure to have either a tight rein on your emotions or a healthy supply of tissues. The ending is the same, but only after a pretty rough roller coaster ride.