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 U.S. Army’s last great cavalrymen, 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.
Pulling together this multistranded story, Elizabeth Letts introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters: Alois Podhajsky, director of the famed Spanish Riding School of Vienna, a former Olympic medalist who is forced to flee the bomb-ravaged Austrian capital with his entire stable in tow; Gustav Rau, Hitler’s imperious chief of horse breeding, a proponent of eugenics who dreams of genetically engineering the perfect warhorse for Germany; and Tom Stewart, a senator’s son who makes a daring moonlight ride on a white stallion to secure the farm’s surrender.
Elizabeth Letts’s stunning historical retelling, The Perfect Horse, takes the reader through eighty years of equine history, with World War II the devastating heart of the tale. Though nonfiction, the book reads like an historical thriller and is in turns both moving and wrenching.
The book is a poignant recounting of some of the world’s finest horses—the ballerina-like Lipizzaners of the famed Spanish Riding School of Vienna and Poland’s prized Arabians—and their struggle to survive the decimations of war. Passionately and grippingly told, Letts explores a two-fold story: Not even horses were spared from the Nazi ideal of a superior race as the eugenics program of Germany sought to create the perfect horse; and the joint mission at the end of the war to save the horses from the approach of the brutal, hungry Russian army.
The Perfect Horse is a bit disjointed in the telling, simply because of the sheer scope and complexity of the events, though Letts attempts to circumvent this with dividing the book into sections that explore the players on each side of the war, the mission itself, and the aftermath. The tale started slowly as Letts set the stage. The author’s love of horses comes through on the pages, though at times her descriptions of the horses come across as rambling anthropomorphisms.
The character list at the beginning of the book was invaluable, and Letts’s strength in this story lies in grabbing readers by the heart and bringing both man and horse to life on the page. The main heroes of the story—Austrians, Germans, Poles, and a band of Americans—are fully-fleshed characters who are taken straight from history and given distinct voices in The Perfect Horse. Letts’s thorough research using archival materials and first-person accounts is evident especially when it comes to these courageous men. The villains of the story are Gustav Rau, a German horse expert in charge of the breeding in the Third Reich, focused solely on the assembly-line turn out of horses suited for an Aryan nation; the swiftly approaching, brutal Russian army who saw horses as little more than tools or food; and the war itself.
Lyrical and memorable, The Perfect Horse is a stunning, bittersweet tale of how those noble, inspiring creatures we know as horses can capture hearts, represent hope and beauty in the midst of horror and rubble, and unite even the gravest of enemies in an effort to save them.
Highly recommended for those interested in history, particularly history focusing on the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and the Lipizzaners and on the World Wars, and for animal lovers, with the caveat that some of the scenes are difficult and upsetting to read