When we think of war, it’s difficult to frame it in a positive light. What good could possibly come of mass death and destruction? If pressed, we may offer technological advances developed during wartime, or the heroic actions of someone involved in the conflict. Think even smaller. Perhaps a family was able to better themselves financially through war work. Maybe a child became friends with a refugee. We tend to think about war on a grand scale, forgetting that it impacts those on the home front in ways besides the absence of loved ones.
The reason I mention this point is because of a book that I received as a Christmas present this year from a close friend. The title immediately grabs your attention: The War That Saved My Life. How could a war, responsible for claiming lives, save one instead? There is a clear absence of barbed wire or Stars of David on the cover, so the title can’t be referring to someone fleeing from oppression under Nazi rule. Exceedingly curious, I was hesitant to dive into the book despite a glowing recommendation from my friend (as well as Mr. Newbery). The cover art and the size of the font suggested that the book’s target audience was pre-teens, meaning that I likely wouldn’t enjoy it. Did my misconception of age-appropriate material turn out to be true? Not in the least! I’m actually rather ashamed to have had such a thought to begin with, as The War That Saved My Life certainly put me in my place.
The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley:
In the ten years she’s been alive, Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her cruel and manipulative mother sees Ada’s clubfoot as a constant source of shame and refuses to let people find out that Ada’s a “cripple”. Ada fights back in the only way she knows how by secretly teaching herself to walk. When her brother Jamie’s school is evacuated to the countryside following the outbreak of World War Two, Ada manages to escape and is sent away along with them. Showing the marks of their mistreatment and poverty, the siblings are thrust upon a prickly woman named Susan who isn’t used to caring for children. Finally “free”, Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and even makes her first friend. However, un-learning the lessons living under her mother’s roof has taught her doesn’t come as easily. It will take everything Ada has, along with the love and support of Susan and Jamie, to discover her self-worth and make a stand.
My friend has been hyping this book up to me as long as I’ve known her. Surprisingly, none of my local libraries owned a copy, so I kept putting off buying it because my bird brain told me that since the book was meant for ages 9+, it wasn’t worth spending money on something I probably wouldn’t read again. (I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have listened!) Knowing that when I put something off it’ll take ages to finally get it done, my friend wisely took charge and bought me not only The War That Saved My Life, but also its sequel, The War I Finally Won, as a Christmas gift. I picked up the first book on New Year’s Eve, immediately became engrossed in it, and stayed up late the next few nights in order to finish it. Ditto for Book Two.
I think one of the reasons I enjoyed both books was for the exact reason that made me so hesitant to purchase them in the first place. Because The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won were targeted towards children, words weren’t wasted. The language managed to be descriptive, engaging, and straight-to-the-point all at the same time. Another reason why I really liked these books is because the author didn’t shy away from addressing Ada’s trauma. Even though Ada finds a way to escape her mother, during her time with Susan Ada is rude to adults, makes rash and selfish decisions, and struggles with insecurities. Her learned behaviour and mental health issues are translated into her every action. I thought that her journey in moving past her trauma was beautifully portrayed in a way that was easy for both myself and young readers to comprehend. We couldn’t help but root for Ada. Finally, this book was an easy-read, filled with heartbreaking discoveries and plot twists that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat (in a good way). It’s one of those unputdownable books you’ll be drawn to again and again. The Newbery Honour committee certainly knew what they were doing when they chose The War That Saved My Life as one of its recipients.
The follow-up to The War That Saved My Life, The War I Finally Won continues Ada’s journey following the surprising discovery at the end of Book One. There are new challenges to face, such as having to share a house with a snobby minor noble and Ruth, a Jewish girl from Germany. Ada and her neighbours are suspicious of Ruth given her background, but after getting to know her Ada learns the importance of forming her own opinions instead of blindly believing someone else’s. Meanwhile, with war circling ever closer, Ada navigates her relationships with Susan and Jamie through the wake of challenging events that put everything Ada’s fought for into perspective. The sequel reminds you of the reasons why you fell in love with these characters in the first place, and is a fitting farewell to our spunky heroine.
The main thing I’ve taken from this duology is not just that I should take my friend at her word when she insists something is worth reading, but also that aging out of children’s novels doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth reading anymore. Funny how I hadn’t picked up on that despite possessing a rather large collection of children’s novels (such as the life’s work of Roald Dahl) in my home. I’m growing up too fast, as my family likes to say. That’s no excuse to turn my back on things I would have enjoyed when I was younger. If anyone needs me, I’ll be reacquainting myself with Mary Pope Osbourne’s Magic Treehouse series.