During World War II, the famous Lipizanner horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna were relocated to the Austrian countryside to escape bombing. In the historical novel Flight, Vanessa Harbour imagines how a Jewish boy and a Roma girl, hiding from the Nazis, could have participated in the rescue of these classically trained animals. Some of the performing horses have been stolen by the Germans, and others are at risk from the advancing Soviet Army. Jakob and Kizzy, both mourning their lost parents, are dedicated to preventing further harm to the horses, which the United States military eventually saves.
While Harbour’s animal characters are not humans in disguise, they are depicted with anthropomorphic touches, including sensitivity and implied communication with the people who care for them. The horses in Flight are noble beings, sharing in the anguish of those around them. There are lyrical descriptions of the environment, as Jakob, Kizzy, and Jakob’s protector, Herr Engel, pursue their escape. Scenes of the characters navigating mountains and rivers, where nature sometimes threatens and at other times protects them, are more than a background to the story. Harbour’s strength as an author is most apparent in these sections of the book, as she draws a contrast between the Nazis’ savagery and the deep connection that Jakob and Kizzy recognize between humans and the physical world around them.
From a historical perspective, the book offers readers insight into a lesser-known episode in the war. Harbour features interactions between historical figures and fictional characters, adding depth to her narrative. Educators and caregivers can encourage young readers, who will be drawn to the exciting facts of the story, to do further research about the Lipizzaner horses and the people who took responsibility for their rescue.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.