Lynn: “There are all kinds of wars,” 10-year-old Ada confides at the start of The War That Saved My Life (2015), by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. The story opens in London during the summer of 1939. A war with Hitler seemed imminent but for Ada, the more dangerous war had been going on as long as she could remember. Born with a club foot, Ada is never allowed outside their flat. Despised and abused by her cruel mother, Ada has never been to school, had enough to eat, or touched grass. The only love in Ada’s life comes from her 6-year-old brother, Jamie. In desperation, Ada has secretly taught herself to walk as best she can despite the pain it causes. When their mother allows Jamie to be evacuated out of London to safety in the country, Ada makes up her mind to escape with him. On the morning of their scheduled departure, Ada and Jamie leave long before their mother wakes and join the throngs of children on the train.
Bradley’s use of exquisitely drawn details
brings her characters into sharp authenticity.
In their destination village, no one steps forward to take Jamie and Ada—a small wonder since they are filthy, smelly, and emaciated. The woman in charge places them with a very unwilling Susan Smith. “I know nothing about children,” she tells them, “I am not a nice woman.” But Ada is used to people who aren’t nice, and although Susan is struggling with her own grief, she doesn’t come close to the kind of meanness Ada is used to. As WWII begins, Ada, Jamie, and Susan struggle to live together. Ada has been fighting a war for so long that she doesn’t understand kindness, but slowly, these three wounded people begin to heal and form a family.
The plot is reminiscent of Good Night, Mr. Tom (1981), by Michelle Magorian, but Bradley’s beautifully subtle characterizations and Ada’s poignant voice are what captured my heart. Ada is strong and vulnerable, persistent and uncertain all at once. Bradley’s use of exquisitely drawn details brings her characters into sharp authenticity. This passage is a good example:
Susan had gotten over being surprised by the things we didn’t know. When she showed me how to cook or sew or something, she always started at the beginning. “This is a needle. Look, it has a little hole at one end, for the thread to loop through and a point on one end so it can go into cloth.”
I laughed and cried through this story, held my breath during the terrifying climax, and cheered for the resolution. As Ada says, there are many kinds of wars and some can save your life.