I cannot count the number of times I ended up in tears reading this novel. Which made traveling the subway a little embarrassing, and working out on the treadmill downright dangerous.
In 1939 London, 10-year-old (maybe) Ada has lived her life in pain, due to a foot deformity and the mental and physical abuse inflicted by her mother. Neglected and mistreated, she has never been outside her Mam’s one room apartment, never seen grass or a tree, has never learned to read, doesn’t know her own age or birthday, and is ignorant of practically everything that anyone else would take for granted. Ada spends her time looking out her window onto a cheerless laneway, and looking after her little brother Jamie while her mother works in the pub below the flat.
When WWII looms, she and Jamie escape to the country with the child evacuees, hoping to leave their cruel mother behind.
This may be a middle-grade book, but absolutely nothing is unsophisticated about the writing or the emotions in this story. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written an incredible story about family and hope.
Ada and Jamie and their reluctant hostess Susan are beautiful characters. And while Ada is the central figure in the story, the other two complete the circle. The depth of the children’s neglect and abuse is detailed naturally in their conversations and actions, without horrific description. Susan is not painted as the perfect substitute mother; rather she is a lonely and bitter woman, who has lost love, trusts no one, acknowledges her inability (and lack of desire) to care for children, and embraces her darkness. Her former relationship with her “dear friend” Becky is clear without being gratuitous and offers great context for her withdrawal.
All three grow and change during their life together, with the relationships deepening as the trust develops. What starts as an arms-length relationship when the world is sunny and war is far off, changes to a deep affection and attachment as the world darkens around them. Ada and Jamie learn that there can be safety and kindness and that determination and confidence can help change the world. Or at least, their small corner of it. Susan realizes that she has been holding the world at arms length, rather than the world pushing her away.
There are many types of wars; those between nations, those of ignorance, and those that are fought with oneself. Ada fights pain and ignorance and lack of self-worth, Jamie fear, and Susan loneliness. Surrounded by conflict, each fights personal battles against a backdrop of great evil and terror.
And the evil and terror are accurately depicted. WWII England was waiting for an invasion in 1939-40, hearing about Hitler’s march through other nations, and wondering if their great country would fall.
The War that Saved My Life celebrates families of all kinds, those you are born into, and those you choose. One is not necessarily superior, but the novel also does not shy away from darkness; sometimes, blood is not a barrier against neglect and hatred. Sometimes it is a perfect cover.
It is a book about hope and kindness. It is about love and finding your place. It is about learning and accepting that you deserve goodness.
And yes, these themes are common in middle-grade fiction, and we have all read the story before. But there is nothing common about this book. Anyone can read it, and should, with a box of tissues alongside.
The War that Saved My Life was published January 8th, 2015 by Dial Books.