The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells the story of ten-year-old Ada who lives in London with Mam (her mother) and her little brother, Jamie. The story begins in the summer of 1939 and England is on the verge of war. Children are being sent away to the countryside for fear that London will be bombed. Ada was born with a clubfoot, and won’t be sent away with Jamie because her mother is ashamed she is crippled, and confines Ada to their small apartment. She’s allowed to look out the window as a “great kindness.” Mam treats Ada like her servant, ordering her to fix “bread and drippings” for herself and Jamie. Ada is denied the same amount of food, though she doesn’t worry because Jamie always shares his. Sometimes, Mam punishes Ada by forcing her into the cabinet under the sink where it is dark and there are cockroaches. The reader hates Mam.
Ada knows her only hope is to teach herself to walk. When Mam is at work, and Jamie at school, she practices though it causes her tremendous pain. When Jamie leaves for the bus for the countryside, Ada sneaks out with him. Once in the countryside, they are the last to be chosen by families, and therefore brought to the house of Susan Smith, a woman without children who struggles with issues of her own. Her best friend, Becky, died years ago, and Susan has never been the same, often wallowing in loneliness. She begrudgingly takes in the children when pressured to do her “duty.” She doesn’t know how to raise children but right away, she feeds and bathes them. She takes Ada to the doctor who diagnoses her clubfoot and wonders why it wasn’t corrected in infancy. He says it can be fixed with surgery. Ada, though fearful of Ms. Smith, grows to love Butter, the horse in Susan’s barn. She teaches herself to ride, and makes friends with Maggie, a girl who is home from boarding school.
In fits and starts, Ms. Smith and the two children learn to live together. They grow to care about each other. The war escalates and Ms. Smith and Ada are called to duty to help wounded soldiers. Ada even identifies a man as a spy. Mam eventually comes for the children, and they return with her. Mam abuses Ada, and admits she never wanted kids, and then she was born with a crippled one. Ms. Smith takes no time is going after them, a move that “saves” her life. This wonderful book is rich with historical context, deeply-realized characters, and a villain (Mam) that the reader truly loathes for her unconscionable treatment of Ada. There is now a sequel to this book, The War I Finally Won.