Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5
I happened to snag The War That Saved My Life off the new books shelf because it looked vaguely familiar. It was only later that I realized it was a Newbery Honor title. I read The War That Saved My Life in one sitting; it was that good.
The protagonist of this book, Ada, has grown up unable to walk, locked in a London apartment by an abusive mother and prevented from communicating with the outside world. When WWII and the evacuation of children from the city begins, Ada’s mother intends only to send Jamie, her son, to the countryside. Ada is determined to go along; she secretly teaches herself to walk and escapes with Jamie before their mother realizes they’re gone.
Susan Smith is not prepared to take in children. She’s depressed after losing her friend fairly recently and generally recluse. However, the organizer for the villager gives her no choice. Despite her initial discomfort, Susan steps up to the task and creates an excellent life for the children, dealing with challenges like Jamie’s chronic bed wetting and Ada’s prickliness. Ada bonds with the pony Susan’s friend left her. It leads her on many adventures, including delivering a girl back to her house after a fall from a horse and helping foil a party of German spies. Slowly, Ada overcomes her reticence and panic attacks (described in a manner which made me think PTSD from the abuse her mother inflicted) to trust Susan.
Because Susan and the local doctor want to help Ada walk comfortably by surgically correcting her club feet, they attempt to contact Ada’s mother. After many months of no response, Ada’s mother unexpectedly shows up in the village; fearing she will be forced to pay benefits, she drags her children back to London. She takes all of Ada’s new clothes and sells her crutches, removing her ability to get around. This nearly turns fatal when a bomb hits close to their building and Jamie and Ada have to evacuate. Not one to be left behind, Ada manages to make it out of the building and to shelter. Shortly thereafter, Susan arrives in London to take the children back. When they return to the village, they find that Susan’s house was a casualty of bombing. Thus, the relationship between Ada and Susan, only made possible because of the war, saved them both, physically and emotionally.
As I mentioned, I loved this book and might even reread, which is rare with me and YA. The author does a remarkable job of capturing Ada’s mental and emotional state without locking the story in her head. There is a solid balance of character development and action. Ada is an amazingly strong heroine who never gives up. She’s not always likable – particularly towards the beginning when she’s still figuring out who to trust and how to read social cues – but she is always compelling. This is historical fiction at its finest.
The book is recommended for Grades 4-6, which seemed about right. Because of the description of abuse and its after-effects, as well as some relatively graphic descriptions of WWII battle injuries (Ada helps care for the soldiers who escaped Dunkirk), I’d be hesitant to read it with children much younger than Grade 4. However, children beyond Grade 6 may well enjoy the title, as I did myself.
Read alike: Good Night, Mr. Tom is the most obvious. It also features an abused child evacuated from London and has a similar ending.