The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. January 8, 2015. Dial Books, 320 pages. Ages 9-12. 2016 Newbery Honor Book.
Ada lives in WWII London, though she has never been allowed outside her family's tiny apartment because her mother is ashamed and embarrassed by her clubbed foot, which makes it impossible for her to walk. However, her younger brother Jamie is allowed to come and go as he pleases. Ada's mother is abusive to them both, but targets Ada in particular and she is often slapped, hit, beaten, starved, or locked in a moldy, cockroach-infested cabinet. Ada fantasizes about someday being able to walk and making her mother proud of her.
Then Jamie tells Ada that all the children are being evacuated to the country soon to be safe from the German bombs they expect to come any day. This gives Ada the motivation to learn to walk, though she can only go short distances and it causes her great pain. She and Jamie sneak out in the early hours of the morning and are taken to the country with the other children where they are eventually taken in by Miss Susan Smith, who seems none too pleased about it at first, but treats them well.
Ada is relieved to be away from her mother, and though she becomes physically much stronger with a much-improved diet and exposure to fresh air and sunshine, she is very troubled emotionally and has a hard time accepting any kindness or material things from Susan as she doesn't want to get too used to it and then lose it all when their mother finds them or they get sent away. She becomes angry, but doesn't understand why, and often is overwhelmed and has meltdowns. The one thing that soothes her is Butter, the pony belonging to Miss Smith's late friend. She gains Butter's trust and eventually teaches herself to ride.
But even as the war progresses, her biggest fear is still getting too attached and having to go back to the horrible conditions she grew up in. Will she ever be really safe? Will she ever learn to love, and more importantly, to be loved?
I loved this book! It was a very moving and touching story of not just survival, but of surviving and then learning to thrive. The characters are well-developed and you really feel like you know Ada and what she is going through; her voice is very real. I admired Ada's devotion to her brother and her shear ability to survive a horrible childhood. My heart ached at her sadness and anger, and struggling to figure out what love really was and whether it was real. I wanted to subject her mother to the kind of abuse she heaped on Ada, for no other reason than being born. It's heart-wrenching to think that there are many kids out there silently suffering the same kind of abuse in real life. While parts of the book are sad and upsetting, it is overall an uplifting story. My only disappointment was not seeing Ada's mother suffer some horrible and painful demise.
Although this is historical fiction as it's set during WWII, it really isn't about WWII so much as it is about a child overcoming incredible obstacles and surviving abuse. Therefore, I wouldn't recommend it to readers as historical fiction, but for anyone who is interested in a moving, but ultimately uplifting story of someone surviving enormous hardships and challenges on a physical and/or emotional level, regardless of time frame or setting. Other WWII-themed books are often listed as readalikes, but I think someone who is specifically looking for WWII fiction might be disappointed if given this, and someone who loved this book might find some of the WWII fiction too military in nature.
Note: The War That Saved My Life was named a 2016 Newbery Honor Book.
Other Newberry Award/Honor Books
Last Stop On Market Street, Echo, and Roller Girl.