“I knew Susan wasn’t real. Or, if she was a tiny bit real, sometimes, at the very best she was only temporary. She’d be done with us once the war was over, or whenever Mam changed her mind” (Bradley 2015, p. 202).
“She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. ‘You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!’ My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn’t bear to hear her call me beautiful” (Bradley 2015, p. 214).
I’ve read many books in my day, but none have made me angrier than this one. I wasn’t angry with the book itself, of course; the book was beautifully written and full of wonderful, engaging characters. From the very first page, however, I developed an unrelenting hatred for “Mam,” wishing the novel would take pity on its readers and end her in a brutal way. I know; these are strong words for a fictional character in a children’s novel. I just absolutely cannot stand to see child abuse in any form, even if I know it’s only fiction. Sadly, there are many children out there who have faced (and are currently facing) the abuse Ada and Jamie must face in this book, a thought that made the abuse in this novel all the more real and infuriating. Mam simply serves as an easy target for the rage I have towards anyone who would harm a child. That being said, I absolutely loved this book, and found it to be another incredibly moving work of historical fiction.
The War That Saved My Life is set in London, England, during the very beginning of World War II. The story follows a little girl named Ada, who has been locked away her entire life due to her clubfoot, which her abusive mother finds shameful and humiliating. Ada’s “Mam” frequently beats her, locks her away, refuses to feed her properly, and forces her to spend the night in roach-infested cupboards for minor offenses. Though her “normal” brother Jamie receives slightly better treatment, the two are highly abused and living in complete filth and squalor. This changes when an order is sent out, requiring all of London’s children to be sent to the countryside for safe-keeping during the war. Though Ada’s mom refuses to let her go, Ada decides she’s finally had enough of her horrible circumstances and runs away with Jamie in tow. The two feel unwanted at first, but eventually end up in the home of a lady named Susan Smith, who treats them with the kindness and compassion they’ve never had from their mother. Though reluctant at first, Susan soon grows to love the children as her own, showing Ada that she might be worthy of love after all. The War That Saved My Life is a beautifully told story of love, courage, and how it’s always possible to find freedom and peace… even in the middle of a war.
Ada was such an easy character to root for. My heart broke for her, just as it has for many of the protagonists in the books I’ve read this semester. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be so cruel to her own child, denying her necessary treatments and hiding her away like some sort of “freak.” Part of me wondered how a child like Wonder‘s Auggie would have fared in such conditions, without a supportive and loving family willing to help him through his medical conditions. This, of course, was even more heart-breaking, as I know there are parents out there who would abandon any child who wasn’t “perfect” from birth. What Mam does to Ada is, arguably, much worse than abandonment. She locks Ada in cupboards for trying to get food, beats her relentlessly even for looking out the window, and constantly belittles her because of her clubfoot, calling her a “freak” and a “lousy cripple.” There were times, while reading this book, that I got so angry I had to put it down. I honestly wouldn’t have minded if a bomb had dropped on Mam while the children were away, leaving them free to live with Susan forever. It was a horrible thought, of course, but would’ve been a fitting end for such a cruel, nasty character.
I also loved the theme of freedom throughout this novel, and the irony of a character gaining peace and freedom during one of the world’s most tumultuous times. Though World War II was raging around her, Ada could only focus on her own personal war, the war being waged against her by her own abusive mother. The title of this novel is extremely appropriate, as Ada is only able to see what a real, loving family looks like after fleeing bombs in London. Susan is eccentric and brash, but caring, teaching Ada to read, write, and sew. While in the country, Ada also learns how to ride a horse, making her feel alive and free as she never has on her own two feet. The novel incorporates elements of the real life war into the plot effortlessly, adding moments that make Ada reflect upon her own life with new eyes. For example, in one scene, Susan makes Ada a brand new dress, and Ada feels so guilty wearing it (still feeling like she’s nothing) that she has a complete breakdown on Christmas Eve. The next day, air force pilots from a nearby air base come to visit and play with her and her brother, pilots who later end up dead as the war intensifies. When Ada realizes this, she comes to a stunning realization:
“I understood why I’d been upset on Christmas. I’d felt overwhelmed; I really couldn’t help myself. But now, thinking back, it seemed a little silly to be unhappy about a dress when the pilots were dead. If I had it to do over, I would at least have learned their names” (p. 285).
Though Ada has suffered a number of cruelties in her own life, she holds a great deal of compassion for those fighting in the war. It gets to the point where she has to step out of the theater during the newsreels before the movie, unable to stomach the horrific images of men losing their lives to the war. At one point, Ada volunteers to help bring water to refugee soldiers, and can hardly believe her eyes when one man asks her to write a letter one minute and is dead the next. Though many people know the terrible tragedies of the Holocaust during this time, few stop to think about the horrors taking place in other countries. As the novel progresses, the war becomes worse and worse, the death toll rises, bombs are dropped nightly, and food must be rationed off to citizens. What had once been a distant concept for Ada becomes very real, leading her to fear for her safety and the safety of those around her. This novel does an excellent job of focusing on an individual’s story while relaying the horrors of the time period, including details and specific historical events (such as the Battle of Dunkirk) to add to the realism of the story.
Though it might seem terrible for a child to witness the horrors of war, this was sadly the reality of the time period. This novel does not shy away from the fact that WWII was a nasty, bloody war, but it chooses to focus on a very different kind of injustice, one that might’ve taken place anywhere and during any time period. Framing the story of an abused girl with a clubfoot with the events of World War II add historical detail to an incredibly human story, helping the reader to see this time period in an entirely new light. For Ada, the war might be horrifying, but it is also a blessing, as it allows her to escape her own personal nightmare in order to find a better life. In the end, she’s able to see her own worth and value, and realizes the beauty and warmth of having friends and family, people who support and love you. Though many parts of this novel (especially the abuse) had me fuming, I was so happy to see Ada get her happy ending, and I’d love to see what happened next. I imagine the townspeople helped Susan to rebuild her house, Ada got her foot surgically repaired, and her and her brother were officially adopted. This is certainly a book I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to, however.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or if you simply enjoy stories of bravery, courage, and hope, you will absolutely love this book. It shows the events of World War II from the incredibly unique perspective of a crippled little girl in England, a perspective I’ve certainly never seen before in literature, much less children’s literature. It has moments that will make you laugh, cry, and rage at the book, and will ultimately take you on a miraculous journey through the life of one very special little girl.
Bradley, K. B. (2015). The war that saved my life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.