Friday, May 22, 2015

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2015

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Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.
(316 pages)

The War That Saved My Life is a great book for several reasons - several separate reasons. That's because so much is going on, emotionally and physically, that a couple books could have been made off of each separate theme.

One book could provide a fascinating look at what life was like for the uneducated kids from London slums, sent to live with (relatively) rich families in the countryside. Chapters could have been written focusing on the struggles those city kids faced, missing their families and living with complete strangers in a world completely foreign to their own. Many children were actually summoned back to London by parents who missed their kids, and thought that since the Germans hadn't bombed London yet, they never would. This description of events is so different from those in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that right there I would have been fascinated!

But that's not all Bradley did. There was also Susan's story, a story of rejection and loss and solitude. Susan's best friend (or maybe more, but I prefer to ignore the signs) Becky died a few years earlier, leaving Susan the house they had shared and remembrances everywhere of what Susan had lost. At the beginning of the book Susan is sad and lonely, and doesn't believe that anything can change that. She is forced to step forward by Ada and Jamie's arrival, and it is great to watch her begin to move on from her own troubles as she helps the kids move on from theirs. From the teaser I was afraid it would be one of those "she initially hates them but gradually comes to love them, then admits it in the end" kind of book. On the contrary, Susan only refuses to take the kids because she fears she's not emotionally fit to care for anyone other than herself. It's soon obvious to the reader that she, while struggling to adapt to their presence, quickly comes to love them. It's far from obvious to the affection-starved children, however, and Ada struggles through much of the book to reconcile Susan's kindness with the actions of someone who by her own admission didn't want kids.

And then of course there's the story of Ada and Jamie. The other stories weave themselves into a background tapestry, combining with a thousand smaller story bits to form a gigantic backing for the central figures - or really, figure. Sorry Jamie, but Ada is the star of this story! It's Ada who tells the tale, her limited understanding of the world painting a harsher picture than any master needle could stitch. She doesn't know what grass is. She doesn't know how to work a flush toilet. She has never heard of crutches. The word "clubfoot" has literally never entered her vocabulary, even though it is the condition that defines her entire life. She thinks that Susan will hit her. And as all the imperfections of Ada's past come to light, it is easy to see that the war does, indeed, save Ada's life. She is just so damaged it takes her a while to understand this.

It's funny, I didn't love The War That Saved My Life when I started writing this review - I only really, really liked it. But the only negatives I can think of are so minor when compared to the positives that they don't really feel worth mentioning - so I guess that means I do love The War That Saved My Life! I'm not going to run out and buy my own copy any time soon, but I will definitely be re-reading it in the future. And I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who's old enough to appreciate it.

Because the more I think about it, the more I love this book.

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