I started reading ‘The War That Saved My Life’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley after a late dinner and did not put the book down till I finished reading all of it by 3.50 AM! This historical novel set during World War II is a compelling tale of 11-year-old Ada Smith, who frees herself from the clutches of an abusive mother & learns to walk after crawling all her life.
It’s written lucidly and is narrated in first person by Ada, who starts by describing the squalid conditions in which they live in and how terribly her mother treats her – like a crippled dog confined to the four walls of their tiny flat. She isn’t allowed to go outside, not to school, not to church, not anywhere, because her mam (mom) is ashamed of the child. Ada manages to slip from her mother when the UK government decides to evacuate all children from London over fears of being bombed by Hitler.
Ada and her six-year-old brother Jamie are reluctantly taken in by an odd unmarried lady called Susan. How will the kids settle in with a woman who isn’t keen on having them and will Ada be able to fulfill her dream of riding a horse? Or will they find themselves in the claws of a negligent mother again? That forms the rest of the story.
Having lived a hard life with her mother, Ada is mature beyond her age and is almost like a mother figure to her brother Jamie. The author tenderly portrays the affection between the two siblings and their struggle to fit in a place they don’t belong. While with their mother in London, the siblings were starved, suppressed, dirty and almost savage-like, but life with Susan in Kent brings out the stark contrast between their poor past and their seemingly richer present.
What really struck a chord with me was the brilliant way in which the author narrates the crippling anxiety Ada suffers at various points due to her traumatic childhood. The little girl experiences panic attacks during stressful situations and the reader can feel the pangs of her fear. Her slow transformation from a shy guilt-ridden isolated child to a more confident girl is brought about beautifully.
This story is not just about the extraordinary courage of a young girl who was branded a ‘useless cripple’ all her life, it’s also about how the friends and family have the power to significantly shape our lives. Susan ended up being my favorite character, a Harvard-educated woman from a humble family, who refused to be chained by the shackles of marriage. Her character development from an elusive lady forced to take two kids under her wings, to becoming an almost ideal mother figure was heart-warming.
This novel had me hooked to every page and was easy to read, especially because there were limited characters, which meant less confusion. Towards the second-half, the story gets more exciting because the war efforts reach Ada’s region. There is a lot of blood, death, bombings and war rationing. A violent war is seamlessly merged with a 11-year-old child’s story.
“The War That Saved My Life” is very little about the larger war fought by nations, and more about the internal wars we wage against ourselves. The internal wars that stop us from reaching our full potential. Wars we must fight to win, to become who we really want to be.
It’s a 5/5 for me, for the sheer fact that I didn’t take a single break while reading this well woven tale.