Gah, another tear jerker! I think I’m drawn to what I’ve heard referred to as “heart fiction”. That’s definitely the category that this book could fall under. I don’t regret it, though. This was an excellent read. There may have even been a night where I fell asleep clutching it in my arms. It’s normal to cuddle books, right? I’m very happy to share with you my thoughts on “The War that Saved My Life”. Let me know what you think!
Ada has spent the last ten years of her life shut up in her family’s tiny London apartment because of her clubfoot. Mam ridicules Ada about being crippled, and tells her repeatedly that she’ll never amount to anything. As if that weren’t bad enough, Mam often banishes Ada to spend hours in the damp, smelly cupboard under the sink. Ada’s mother even refuses to teach her to walk, so Ada must teach herself in secret. Her only respite is being able to look out the window so she can watch the people in the square below. Why does she endure this mistreatment? Because she needs to protect her little brother, Jamie.
When news starts to spread in town about a possible attack by the Germans, children from Ada’s town start being evacuated to the countryside. Mam is ready to send Jamie, but refuses to send Ada because she can’t stand the shame of anyone seeing her crippled daughter. Though Ada hasn’t been taught to read or write, and she’s never been to school, she decides to devise a plan that will get both her and her brother to safety without Mam knowing.
After arriving safely in Kent, Ada and Jamie wait with the other children to be chosen by townspeople who’ve volunteered to take on evacuees. Because of their grimy appearance, Ada and Jamie aren’t picked, and are sent to live with Susan Smith, who originally did not want to shelter any of the evacuees. Susan never had children of her own, and was never married. Her only companion was Becky, now deceased.
Though Susan is depressed over the loss of her friend, she does her best to provide for Ada and Jamie. The situation is challenging for everyone. Ada and Jamie don’t know how to react to kindness, and Susan has no idea how to raise children. Eventually, they each learn their role in the new family unit, and things start to run smoothly. Once dirty and perpetually hungry, the children are now well groomed and properly fed. Because Ada has lived such a sheltered life, she experiences the world as if she were a baby. Even grass and the ocean are new concepts to her. Here’s Ada’s reaction to seeing the ocean for the first time:
“Instead I saw, stretched out in the distance, an endless carpet of blue and gray. Clouds flotated over it and small white things seemed to flicker on the surface of it, but mostly it was like grass, flat and broad and unchanging, except that it went on forever, farther out than I could see. It made me feel lost and shivery, looking at it. I stared and stared. What could it be?”
Under Susan’s supervision, Ada and Jamie blossom into cultured, well behaved, and well mannered children. Ada’s changes are dramatic. She learns to read and write, to sew, and even to ride horses. Susan takes Ada to the doctor where she finally gets the crutches she’s needed her entire life. She becomes an asset to a local stable man, and is a junior member of the Women’s Volunteer Service, helping with the war efforts. Though their quality of life has improved drastically, it’s hard for Ada to believe that this could be anything but temporary.
Ada thinks that the War will never reach her, but she’s been fighting her own war for eleven years. When Mam finally reappears to collect her children, Ada knows she must leave her new life and return to London for Jamie’s sake. Ada is harshly plunged back into her old life of confinement, humiliation, and abuse. But her spirit cannot be broken. Susan built up her confidence and helped Ada realize that her foot has nothing to do with her abilities. Finally, Ada confronts her mother. Mam, spitting with anger, tells the children that she never wanted them, and still doesn’t.
The conclusion of “The War that Saved My Life” is beautiful and sad. It’s best left for the reader to discover, so I won’t spoil the ending.
Though it’s historical fiction, “The War that Saved My Life” is really a story of courage and survival. Ada is a heroine, though she would never say that about herself. What I loved most about this book is that the complexity grows with the story. In the beginning, the text is very accessible, due to Ada’s limited education and experiences. As she grows and learns, it becomes apparent in her narration. As Ada gets more exposure to the world, the reader gets to make discoveries alongside her.
This is a great story of triumph over cruelty and circumstance. It will break your heart, put it back together, then smash it all over again. It will hit you right in the feelings. Each chapter evoked anger, confusion, and joy. I loved Ada from the beginning, because she never wanted or needed pity. She dealt with whatever life gave her as best she could, and I found that to be very heroic. She was selfless in the most impossible moments, and I wondered if I would have been able to make the same decisions.
This book would be great for middle grade readers. I expect it would lead to several side investigations into what life during World War II was like for children. It holds great potential for conversation starters in the classroom. Students would be surprised to find how children survived in a time where their lives were in constant danger. I liked how the author included factual information without hitting readers over the head with it. Sometimes children (and adults!) need to be tricked into learning, don’t they?
Title: “The War that Saved My Life”
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers
You might also enjoy: “One for the Murphys” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
My recommended age range: 5th and up