The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It has a sequel called The War I Finally Won.
Ada Smith is 10 years old and has never left the one room apartment where she lives with her abusive mother and 6-year-old brother, Jamie. Ada has a clubfoot and is unable to walk so she crawls to get around. She has been taking care of Jamie since he was a baby because her mother works nights and sleeps during the day.
Ada’s mother (Mam) hits and verbally abuses Ada. She makes her go without food at times. Mam calls her a monster, a disgrace and a cripple. Ada is forced to stay indoors, but Mam says Jamie can go where he wants because he is normal. Although Ada was born with the clubfoot, her mother says it is her own fault.
Jamie gets caught stealing food from a butcher, and he tells Mam it was for Ada. Mam locks Ada in a tiny cabinet overnight, with the roaches. Ada goes away in her head to a happy place in order to deal with the terror she feels. She isn’t allowed to attend school. She realizes that Jamie will be starting soon, so she secretly teaches herself to walk because she can’t bear the thought of being alone with Mam.
Jamie learns that the children in London are going to be evacuated to the country in case the city is bombed. Mam says she will likely let Jamie go because it will mean one less mouth to feed. She says Ada can’t go because no one would want her.
Ada and Jamie sneak out while their mother is sleeping and join the evacuees. A train takes them to the countryside where host families choose the evacuated children. Ada and Jamie are the most unkempt of the children, and no family chooses to take them.
Lady Thornton, the head of the Women’s Volunteer Service, takes the two to Susan Smith. Susan lives alone in a large house but doesn’t want the children. She is mourning the loss of her best friend, Becky, who died a few years earlier. Ada sees a pony on the side of the house and decides this is where they need to live. Susan tells the children she is mean, but she bathes them, takes them to a doctor, feeds them, reads to them and encourages Ada to believe she is smart and capable. For the first time, Ada has someone looking after her, and Jamie has someone not letting him do whatever he wants. The doctor gives Ada crutches, and she can get around much better.
Ada secretly teaches herself to ride Butter, the pony. She makes friends with Margaret, Lady Thornton’s daughter, and Fred Grimes, the horse keeper for the Thorntons. She later becomes friends with Stephen White, a kind boy from her neighborhood who has also been evacuated to the country.
Jamie goes to school, but the teacher won’t allow Ada in the classroom. One day Jamie comes home with welts on his wrist. Susan goes to the school and sees Jamie’s left hand is tied to the chair. The teacher won’t let him write left-handed because she says it’s a mark of the Devil. Susan tells her that is merely superstition. Later, after the teacher still makes Jamie believe it is a mark of the Devil, Susan makes the children start going to church so no one can say she is ignoring their religious education.
Susan writes letters to Mam to get permission for Ada to have surgery on her foot so she can walk better. Mam never replies.
Ada and Jamie flourish in the country, becoming physically healthier under the care of Susan. Ada has many adventures. She rescues Margaret after she is thrown from her horse. She learns to read and knit. She also discovers a spy. An airstrip is built across from Butter’s pasture and Jamie keeps sneaking in until the pilots give him permission to hang around.
As the war progress, a bomb shelter is built on Susan’s property. The first time they use the shelter, Ada has flashbacks from the times she was locked in the cabinet at home. She must be wrapped in a blanket and calmed by Susan. She tells Susan that the smell of the shelter caused her to have the flashbacks and panic attack. Susan buys rosemary, lavender and sage so the shelter is scented. Ada is calmer during subsequent air raids.
The children celebrate Christmas with Susan. Three of the pilots from the airstrip join them. Ada has a panic attack and breaks down when she receives a beautiful new dress that Susan made for her.
When Mam is told that she will have to pay the government 19 shillings a month if Ada and Jamie stay in the country, she arrives at Susan’s place to take them home. She doesn’t recognize Ada at first. When she learns who she is, she begins berating the girl and slaps her. Susan tells Ada that she doesn’t have to go with her mom. She will go to the police to tell about Mam’s abuse.
Ada isn’t willing to leave Jamie alone with Mam, so she doesn’t stay. At home, Mam slaps Ada again and takes away her crutches. When Jamie wets the bet, Mam hits him as well. Ada confronts her mother, who admits that she never wanted kids and still doesn’t want them. She only went to get them so that she wouldn’t have to pay the government.
That night Ada decides to sneak out and take Jamie back to live with Susan, but bombs go off in the city. Ada and Jamie go to a shelter. They discover that Susan has come back for them, and they return to the country with her. When they get to Susan’s house, it has been bombed. Susan tells Ada and Jamie that because she was searching for them when her house was bombed, they saved her life. Ada says they are now even.
Susan takes Ada and Jamie to church. After their first visit, she makes them go by themselves, telling them that she and churches don’t agree. Susan’s father is a clergyman and a vicar, and he has told her that he doesn’t think his daughter can be redeemed and regain her heavenly crown because she does not want to get married and have children.
Susan teaches Ada and Jamie that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth. She says the evergreen is used for Christmas trees to remind us that God is like an evergreen tree — never dead. She says that green in the midst of winter and light in the midst of darkness are metaphors for God.
A teacher ties Jamie’s left hand to a chair when he writes with it. She says that writing left-handed is a mark of the Devil. Susan later explains to Ada that the Bible says the good people stand on God’s right and the bad people on God’s left before getting cast into hell, so some people think that left-handedness comes from the Devil.
Ada and Jamie’s mother is physically and emotionally abusive to the children. She hits them and locks Ada in a closet whenever she is “bad.” She makes it clear she does not want them.
Ada and Jamie’s father died when Jamie was a baby, but he loved and cared for the children while he was alive. Susan takes the children in and becomes a mother to them. She says she is mean, but she buys the children food and clothing, makes sure they bathe regularly, takes them to the doctor, reads to them and teaches Ada to write and knit.
A teacher ties Jamie’s left hand to a chair when he writes with it. She ties it so tightly that he develops welts. She says that writing left-handed is a mark of the Devil.
Mam uses ’ell which represents h— and calls Susan a slut. People are killed and injured in the bombings. Two of the pilots that celebrated Christmas with Susan and the children are killed when the airstrip is bombed.
People are killed, including young boys, when planes and battleships are blown up. Ada’s mother is both physically and mentally abusive to Ada, and also to Jamie, but in a different way.
The implication is that Susan had a romantic relationship with her best friend, Becky, who died. The two had lived together. Susan says she was never happier than when she was with Becky and she says she will never marry or have children. Her father, who was a clergyman, told her she could never be redeemed if she didn’t turn from her evil ways.
Trauma: Ada suffers from nightmares, flashbacks and disassociation. She goes away in her head when things get hard, and has panic attacks and anxiety. Today, these are common PTSD symptoms for people who have experienced trauma, such as childhood abuse.
Disabilities/Prejudice: Ada has a clubfoot and is seen as “simple” by the neighbors who never actually get to know her but believe what Mam tells them. One neighbor says that she is surprised Ada is out with the normal evacuees because she expected her to be put in an asylum.
Alcohol: Susan receives wine as a gift from one of the pilots that comes for Christmas dinner. They drink the wine before dinner.
Stealing/Lying: Jamie steals food. Ada steals her mother’s shoes and her sugar. At first Ada lies about what happened to her foot. She tells other lies so she won’t get sent back to her mother.
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