67 pages • 2 hours readKimberly Brubaker Bradley
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The War That Saved My Life is a work of historical fiction by bestselling author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. The novel is intended for middle-grade readers and was published in 2015. It has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor for being among the most distinguished American children’s book of its year. The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly listed the book as among the best children’s books in 2015, and it won 14 state book awards.
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Ada is 10 years old as World War II approaches London. She has spent her life confined to a one-room apartment because her mother, Mam, is ashamed of her twisted clubfoot. Mam is physically and emotionally abusive toward Ada and her brother Jamie, so they escape to a rural village in Kent, where Susan Smith, a single woman living alone, takes them in. Susan provides clothing, food, shelter, and medical care for both children. As England and Germany officially declare war, tension between Ada and Jamie heightens. Jamie wants to return to London, whereas Ada would rather remain with Susan.
Ada teaches herself to ride Susan’s horse Butter, giving her the chance to go fast for the first time in her life without pain in her foot. Jamie goes to school, but the teacher deems Ada unfit to attend school, and Ada spends her days riding Butter and learning to care for horses. Jamie is miserable at school, and Susan discovers it’s because his teacher has been tying his wrist to his desk in an attempt to make him right-handed. This is a turning point in the story, as Susan is elevated from caretaker to protector, a role that Ada is accustomed to playing for Jamie. Ada’s anger at Susan increases when she learns that Susan has been neglecting Butter, although unintentionally, by not trimming his hooves.
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Butter makes a recovery, and the relationship between Susan and Ada begins to recover as well when Ada breaks Susan’s sewing machine. Ada expects Susan to be livid, but Susan is calm and understanding, even offering to teach Ada how to sew. Susan also offers to teach Ada to read and write and even massages Ada’s clubfoot to help her gain flexibility. Susan writes to Mam regularly for permission to have Ada’s foot operated on, but Mam never sends a response.
Ada’s anger and confusion intensify as she comes to terms with knowing Mam could have fixed her clubfoot when she was a baby. She writes to Mam herself to ask permission to have the corrective surgery. Mam has moved without providing a new address, and Ada’s letter is returned unopened.
Ada discovers her own strength and courage when she cares for wounded soldiers. The village evacuates its own children, but Susan insists that Ada and Jamie remain with her. Susan, Ada, and Jamie survive nightly air raids as the Battle of Britain begins. Ada still rides Butter regularly during the day and notices a suspicious person rowing toward shore. She reports the person to the police and is hailed as a local hero when the man turns out to be a spy. This is the height of Ada’s self-confidence and is followed by Mam’s return, which brings the tension of the novel to a climax.
Ada and Jamie return to London with Mam, who immediately returns to her abusive ways. Ada confronts Mam, promising to leave with Jamie and take them both out of her life. Before Ada and Jamie can make their planned departure, London is bombed, and they flee to a shelter. When they emerge the next day, they find Susan searching for them among the debris. They return to Kent with Susan to discover that a bomb has landed directly on their home while Susan was in London searching for them. Susan acknowledges that coming after Ada and Jamie has saved her life.
The novel explores themes of persistence and hope, abuse and neglect, acceptance, and the difference between lies and liars.
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley