After losing his family during the war, Jakob has found sanctuary with Herr Engel, who looks after the beautiful Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School. When threatened by the war and Hitler's interest, the stallions have been hidden at a rural stable where Jakob and Engel care for them.
However, when a German officer comes to find Jakob, suspicious that he is a Jew, and finds the horses, they know they- and Jakob- are in danger and must be taken to safety. The only way is to travel straight through Nazi territory and across the Austrian mountains. Joined by Kizzy, a Roma girl also hiding from the Nazis, they set off on their perilous journey to save the stallions.
Having visited the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and knowing a little of the story told in this book, I was very keen to read 'Flight'. In a note at the end, Vanessa Harbour makes it clear that her story is a work of fiction set in the real events surrounding these beautiful horses.
An exciting and compelling read, 'Flight' is a great adventure story. Full of tense, gripping moments, the story also speaks of compassion and companionship during a time of conflict and cruelty. Jakob and Kizzy are both survivors of the horrors of war and Vanessa Harbour does not shy away from the realities of the constant danger they live in nor the atrocities committed at this time.
A huge strength of the story is the characterisation. Feisty Kizzy is superbly drawn with her fierce determination not to be dismissed for being a girl and be 'allowed' to ride the stallions she has helped to save. Flashes of vulnerability appear through her tough exterior, the legacy of her treatment, making her a well rounded, believable character. Her relationship with Herr Engel is also interesting. This man, who has willingly risked his own life to shelter and protect a Jewish boy, is prejudiced against the Roma. She constantly surprises him, clearly showing the stupidity of such generalisations, resulting in an affectionate bond by the end of the story. Jacob's love of the horses, his closeness to them, is warmly portrayed and his compassion contrasts starkly with the callous actions of others.
Although an exciting adventure story, Vanessa Harbour also adds lots of detail about the stallions, the way they are trained and the steps they perform, adding to the sense of importance of these horses and the history and tradition they represent. Watching them 'dance' is a wonderful experience.
'Flight' is very much a 'Moving On' book, but whilst at the Spanish Riding School, I found a picture book by Alison Lester called 'Running with the Horses' which also imagines the rescue of the Lipizzaner stallions during the Second World War and which would introduce younger children to the story of these horses and the brave people- whoever they were- who sought to rescue and protect them at this dark time.
Flight Vanessa Harbour
Firefly Press ISBN: 978-1910080764
Running with the Horses Alison Lester
NorthSouth ISBN: 97-0735840027