Rating: 5 stars
“The War that Saved My Life” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is the kind of book that doesn’t come along often. It’s a very special treasure that will be loved by kids and adults alike. This historical fiction takes place in England during World War II, but the history involved is just part of this touching tale of what it means to be a family.
Ada is ten years old. She cannot remember ever being outside her family’s one room apartment in a poor part of London. While her six-year-old brother Jamie can run outside and play, Ada must remain inside, a prisoner to her clubfoot and her abusive mother. Her mother ingrains in her from a young age that Ada is an imbecile, stupid and a horror. Her clubfoot makes it impossible for her to walk like other children.
When the children of London are evacuated to the countryside, Ada’s mother does not plan to send Ada. But Ada has plans of her own. The day of the evacuation, she and Jamie make it to the train. Once at the other end, no one wants to take in the two — especially since Ada looks awful from her efforts to get there by crawling part of the way.
They are taken in reluctantly by a single woman who makes it clear that she doesn’t want children. In spite of that, she is kind and caring. Children reading this will be shocked by how Ada cringes whenever Susan, her new caretaker, raises her hand. Ada also has nightmares from when her mother had forced her to spend nights inside a cramped cabinet as punishment for some minor infraction — like eating too much or talking to someone out the window.
Slowly, Ada begins to heal. She finds that she can ride the pony that lives in the barn behind the house. That helps her feel mobile. Susan also gets her crutches, so for the first time in her life she can move around with ease. Susan, whose best friend had died years before, also slowly appears to escape from the depression that had held her in its iron grip ever since.
The story causes the readers to examine what it means to be a family. Susan and her friend had lived together in the pretty house as a nontraditional kind of family, and Susan, Ada and Jamie are certainly not a traditional family grouping either. But as they all change and grow together, it’s certainly a family that is created. And when something happens that threatens to break up the family, each of them must decide what they will risk to keep the family together.
Older readers will notice that Susan’s friend, whom she loved more than anything, was a woman. And they met at Oxford and lived together. It’s noted that the women in town (as well as Susan’s father, a vicar) didn’t approve of their relationship. Susan’s father was disappointed that she never married. Nothing is overt, but it would seem that one would only grieve the way Susan grieves for a person with whom one was in love.
Another aspect of the novel worth classroom discussion time is the difference in the lives of the poor and the rich in the story. The girl whom Ada eventually befriends speaks differently and lives in a manor home. She goes to boarding school because the local public school is not good enough for her.
But Ada and Jamie’s new life is one of relative comfort when compared to their life with their mother in the tiny apartment with little to eat. Each day with Susan brings new revelations: sheets, napkins, baths, silverware. The story also includes the small cruelties that siblings occasionally inflict on each other.
A book is so touching, so filled with real, believable characters, that the reader will be reluctant to begin another book for days. It’s the kind of book that demands thoughtful processing and remembering. It’s the kind of book that will change readers and leave them better people for having read the story.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Dial, for review purposes.