The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is a highly acclaimed historical fiction boasting awards from an extensive list of periodicals and, most impressively, was named a Newberry Honoree after its publication in 2015. Parents need to give this book’s themes some careful consideration, however, before passing it on to their children.
Ada Smith was born into terrible hardship in 1930s London. The story picks up when Ada is ten years old and forbidden by her mother from leaving the family’s dingy one-room apartment. This, and the many other abuses that Ada suffers, are partly the result of her mother’s shame and disgust with regard to Ada’s clubfoot. “Mam”, as Ada and her brother Jamie call her, couldn’t bare the disgrace of the neighbors seeing her daughter’s deformity, and so, she keeps Ada locked up in deplorable conditions, regularly attacks her both physically and verbally, and perpetuates the rumor that Ada stays in the home because she is mentally retarded.
While Ada endures these torments, another, even more hellish situation is developing in continental Europe: Nazi Germany is about to begin its war against humanity. The War That Saved My Life fits well into the popular genre of books depicting childhood responses to war, though Ada’s circumstances cause her to view the war much differently than do most other children. The primary focus of the book is Ada’s struggle to overcome the physical and emotional scars left by her mother, but the author does successfully weave several critical wartime events into Ada’s story.
Anticipating that Hitler’s Luftwaffe will bomb their capital, the British government orders the removal of all of London’s children to the countryside. In spite of her mother’s refusal to allow her to leave with her brother, Ada sneaks away from the apartment, after secretly and painfully teaching herself to walk, and boards a train to the southeast of England along with her brother and hundreds of other children. It is in this part of the country that Germany eventually brings the fighting directly to the British Isles, and where Ada is thrust into monumental events such as the miraculous rescue of the Allied troops from Dunkirk and the “finest hour” of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.
It is not the war that changes the lives of Ada and Jamie forever, but the woman who takes the siblings into her home: Miss Susan Smith. Susan offers Ada and Jamie a new life. For the first time the children are provided for in all of their material needs, and, what’s more, Susan gives them both opportunities for education, outdoor recreation, and even the possibility for Ada to finally have her foot fixed. It is through Susan that Ada first experiences freedom and realizes her true human dignity.
The main conflict of the book, however, arises from this newfound freedom. After years of abuse and denigration, Ada finds it impossible to accept the fact that Susan genuinely cares for and loves her. She can’t fully embrace this liberation because she doesn’t trust that it is true or that it will last. This causes Ada tremendous strife and keeps her from taking full advantage of these many opportunities, and keeps her from loving and appreciating Susan the way that she should. With Ada as the first-person narrator, the reader lives through this anxiety with her, but also witnesses the slow development of her trust and acceptance.
This witnessing happens in tandem with a creative literary development within the book. The language in the first half of the book is juvenile by design, because it is the language of a completely uneducated, unformed young girl. This becomes evident through Ada’s interactions with Susan when we see that she does not even know simple names for everyday items. Throughout Ada’s story, the reader becomes aware that, as she grows, matures, and learns while living with Susan, the sophistication of her words, her emotions, and her thoughts, matures along with her. So, although the language may seem simple, the emotions that they are struggling to convey are actually quite complex.
There are many wonderful lessons that can be gleaned from The War That Saved My Life. The story of Ada’s persistence is admirable. There is great value in the empathy that the book can teach us for this young girl in her suffering. Susan embodies true charity and provides us with an excellent role model for that virtue. Parents need to be aware, however, of an underlying theme that runs throughout this children’s novel. A number of the book’s characters possess traits that members of their society deem either unattractive at best, or diabolical at worst. Ada with her clubfoot is the most obvious example, but Jamie is also shunned by his new teacher for being left-handed.
Susan’s lesbianism is never overtly stated in The War That Saved My Life. Rather, she refers to the fact that the female society of her village ostracizes her for being different, and her father, an Anglican vicar, for her “evil ways”. All of this comes to light after she spends the first several weeks of the children’s stay in paralyzing mourning over the recent death of Becky, whose home she shared before the children arrived. Susan’s same-sex attraction, in its own right, is hardly a theme within the book, and could very easily have been left out entirely. The significance of it, however, comes from its correlation with Ada and Jamie’s respective “abnormalities”. Both Ada’s clubfoot and Jamie’s left-handedness are dismissed by their new guardian, correctly, as being realities beyond the children’s control. Because she is such an admirable character, and especially because she acts as the voice of reason in this lesson to Ada and Jamie, Susan’s advocacy of the “you-were-born-this-way” theme is particularly powerful. For this reason, parents should carefully consider this message and how they wish their children to receive it, before ordering a copy.
- How does Ada respond to Ms. Smith’s generosity and kindness? Why do you think she reacts this way?
- How does Ada change throughout the book? In what way does the war “save her life”?
- In a sense, the war also saves Susan’s life. Explain how this is true.
- What are some ways that the war impacted the people of England? Try to recall two specific events from the book when the destruction of World War 2 spilled over into the United Kingdom.