Ten-year-old Ada lives with her Mam and her younger brother, Jamie in London, England. Ada's mother works nights in the pub below their third floor flat. It was Ada's job to get Jamie breakfast in the morning and tea at night. Ada isn't able to walk because her right foot is small and twisted, so she gets around their flat by crawling. Because of her foot, Ada's mother will not allow her to ever leave their flat. She believes her daughter's crippled foot is shameful and that people judge her as a parent. She also frequently tells Ada that her foot is her own fault. Ada hasn't been to school and instead is forced to care for Jamie. She is often hungry.
As Jamie gets older he no longer wants to stay in their flat and one day to prevent him from leaving, Ada ties him up. Seeing how upset he becomes, Ada releases him, realizing that she is becoming cruel like her Mam. That day she decides to teach herself to walk, hoping that if she can walk, Mam will be proud. Learning to walk is a painful process but Ada persists, deciding to keep it a secret. When Mam discovers that Jamie has been stealing food, she punishes Ada by forcing her into the cabinet beneath their sink. This is a terrifying experience for Ada because it is damp, smelly, dark and infested with roaches. And now that she's older and bigger, being in the cabinet all night is painful.
In late August, 1939, Jamie tells Mam that his best friend Billy White says that all the children in London are leaving, being sent to the country. London is going to be bombed by the Germans. Mam decides to send Jamie but not Ada, telling her that "Nice people don't want to look at that foot." Later on Ada tells Jamie to make sure he knows the time and place they are to be, because she intends to leave with him.
On a Friday morning, Ada, wearing her Mam's shoes leaves with Jamie. The walk is painful for Ada, but they make it inside the school. At the school Ada meets Stephen White who is surprised to see Ada. He reveals to her that everyone believes she is "simple" and cannot talk and that people feel sorry for her Mam. Stephen gives Ada a piggy-back ride to the train station and by noon Ada is on the train with the rest of the children headed out of London.
The train ride proves to be a learning experience for Ada who has never seen grass or trees and is astonished to see a girl riding a pony racing the train. For Ada, the girl on the pony leaves a lasting impression. Finally Ada and Jamie along with the other children arrive at a train station and are lined up so they can be paired with adults who will take them into their homes. Ada and Jamie are so scruffy that no one chooses them.The woman in charge of placing the children and whom Ada nicknames the "iron woman" consoles them and then drives them to a house set amongst trees.
They overhear the "iron woman" and the lady who lives at the house, Miss Smith arguing about taking the children. Initially Ada doesn't care whether Miss Smith takes them or not, until she sees the bright yellow pony poking its head through the bushes. This makes Ada take matters into her own hands and she has Jamie help her back to the house. In the end, the iron lady whose name is Lady Thorton, leaves Ada and Jamie with Miss Smith who is not at all very happy.
They are forced to have baths and it is at this time that Miss Smith discovers Ada's foot was not injured by a brewers cart but instead that she has a club foot. She tells Ada that they will go to see the doctor in the morning. Miss Smith learns that Jamie is ready to go to school but that Ada doesn't attend because of her "ugly foot" and that the children do not know their last name. Ada's only concern is the pony whom she learns is named Butter. The doctor tells Miss Smith that the children have impetigo (a skin infection), that they are very malnourished to the point that Ada is developing rickets (a Vitamin D deficiency) The doctor is also disturbed by Ada's untreated club foot, which Ada learns could have been treated when she was a baby. Miss Smith decides she will write Ada's mother immediately in order to get permission for her to have surgery to correct her foot.
Life with Miss Smith is very different from life with Mam. There is lots of food, baths, and special clothes for sleeping in, called pajamas. Ada is allowed to be outside and play. They learn about soup served in bowls and eaten with spoons, little green things called peas and thin white blankets on the beds called sheets. Then with England at war with Germany, comes the risk of being bombed. While Jamie misses Mam and wants to go home, Ada knows "Home was more frightening than bombs." Ada knows if she goes back home she will run away again. But when Jamie has a tantrum at the train station after his friend Billy White is taken home by his mother, Ada wonders if her mother will be happy with her now that she can walk with crutches. Maybe Mam will see that she's not simple. As Ada's health improves and she comes to trust Miss Smith, Ada begins to realize there might not be any going back.
The War that Saved My Life traces the journey of Ada Smith who discovers herself and saves her life and that of her brother Jamie after they are sent out of London to the countryside during the early days of World War II. Born with a club foot, abused by her Mam and malnourished, ten-year-old Ada has no idea of the outside world.
Ada struggles to understand the world she's been dropped into. It seems that people use words but don't really mean what they say. For example, Miss Smith claims she's not a nice person, "but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot in a white piece of cloth, and gave us two of her own clean shirts to wear." Miss Smith tells them eggs are "all the food I have", but "All the food she had, she said, except there was butter on the slightly stale bread, and sugar in the tea." Ada notes that "Miss Smith was not a nice person, but the bed she put us in was soft and clean, with smooth thin blankets and warm thicker ones."
Because she can't trust the words people use, Ada doesn't know how to respond to questions, so she often shrugs. When Miss Smith asks if she's hungry Ada's not sure whether to say yes and she wonders, "Did Miss Smith want me to be hungry, or not?" She is in fact very hungry but telling her Mam would not have changed anything. What would telling Miss Smith mean? Ada has been told by Mam that her clubfoot is her fault but Ada has always wondered whether this was true. The doctor's shock at seeing her untreated clubfoot makes Ada feel like she's done something wrong. When the doctor asks her if she's in very much pain, again Ada has no idea how to answer this question; "How much was very much? What did he want me to say?" And when Ada makes tea for Miss Smith who tells her this was thoughtful, but is thoughtful good or bad?
At first Ada's experiences in the village seem to confirm what she thinks about herself and what her Mam has labelled her. When they arrive in Kent, Ada and her brother are passed over by all the adults. One woman wants Jamie but not Ada. Lady Thorton then takes them to
the home of Miss Smith, who initially rejects the two children but is forced to take
them into her home.
Ada discovers that her mother has not told anyone about her club foot but instead has told people that Ada is "simple". Ada is not sure if she is "simple". Mrs. White who arrives to take her younger son home to London, expresses shock and disgust that Ada is living in the village and not in an asylum. Even the evacuee teacher believes that Ada is "not educable", because she cannot read. However Miss Smith does not believe what she hears about Ada and tells her, "You mustn't listen to people who don't know you. Listen to what you know, yourself."
As time passes Ada struggles mightily with how she views herself
compared to how Miss Smith and Maggie and Fred Grimes see her because her entire life she's been told she's filthy and trash. For example, despite Miss Smith's kindness and generosity, Ada rejects her because she doesn't believe she's worthy of such treatment. She refuses Miss Smith's offer to make her a beautiful green velvet dress. "I had more than I needed. More than I felt comfortable with, really. I was still the girl I'd seen in the train station mirror, still the feeble-minded girl stuck behind a window. The simple one. I was okay with wearing Maggie's castoffs, but I knew my limits."
This feeling reaches a crisis point on Christmas Eve when Miss Smith (Ada now calls her Susan) gives Ada a beautiful green velvet dress she has made. She tells Ada she looks beautiful when she tries it on, but Ada believes she's lying and that she is not worthy of such a beautiful gift. "She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn't bear it. I heard Mam's voice shrieking in my head. 'You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!" My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash I could wear Maggie's discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn't bear to hear her call me beautiful."
On Christmas Day Ada manages to wear the dress because she knows it will make Susan happy but she states, "I felt like an imposter. It was worse than when I tried to talk like Maggie. Here I was, looking like Maggie. Looking like a shiny bright girl with hair ribbons. Looking like a girl with a family that loved her." But when Jamie tells her she looks beautiful, Ada realizes that she does have family that love her - her brother loves her.
As her view about herself changes, Ada's perspective on her life also changes. She begins to desire more for herself and for her life. Her struggles with teaching Butter to trot lead Ada to reach out to Mr. Grimes. "A month ago I'd been thrilled with Butter, and now I wanted something more." Ada tells Grimes about having a clubfoot and asks him if he can fix her. It's the first time there's a hint that Ada might want more than just to walk around on crutches. She also initially refuses Miss Smith's offer to teach her to read. But once she's tricked into learning, Ada works hard to learn to read and write.She works hard for Grimes and eventually masters riding Butter and even identifies the arrival of a spy on the English coast.
The realization that if her mother had her foot fixed she could have been like Jamie able to run and attend school leads Ada to desire much more for herself. Her disability is not her fault. She could be more. When Ada accepts the truth of her situation, she realizes that she wants to be a normal person. "...And I wanted my foot fixed badly. I was tired of it hurting. I wanted to be like a normal person. I wanted to walk without crutches, and I wanted to go to school, and I wanted to wear shoes on both feet. I never wanted to be locked up again."
The knowledge that her disability is not her fault, that her mother inexplicably did not seek treatment for her and the realization that Mam doesn't love her or Jamie makes Ada want to fight for the right to live a life where she is wanted, loved and cared for. To Ada this is her personal war and she now intends to win it.
Brubaker Bradley has crafted an endearing character in Ada Smith. Readers will identify with Ada as she struggles to find a place to belong, to make sense of the world around her and to confront her intense emotions about her mother and her disability. Ada works her way through anger and sadness over the fact that her Mam doesn't love or want her. Miss Smith's unconditional love of Ada and her brother Jamie, help her to confront her mother and to escape. At the same time Ada begins to know joy and love, learned from the actions of Miss Smith.
Miss Smith is also a complex, well crafted character who has her own issues. She too has believed what others have said about her and constantly tells Ada that she is not a nice person, despite her actions proving otherwise. Miss Smith sees herself in Ada, different, judged for a characteristic she feels cannot be changed and therefore socially isolated.
The War That Saved My Life has a subtle message about tolerance towards anyone who is different. Although never directly stated, it is hinted that Miss Smith is a lesbian who lived with her friend Becky. She was rejected by her parents who considered her unredeemable. She tells Ada and Jamie, "In my case being redeemed means changing my evil ways and regaining my heavenly crown. It means my parents don't like me..." Miss Smith's situation is compared to that of Ada with her clubfoot and Jamie with his left handedness, all conditions the author considers people to be born with. Unfortunately, there is no concrete scientific proof that same-sex attraction is something your born with. Nevertheless, the author's message that all people be treated with dignity and are worthy of love, is an important one. Becky's treatment by her parents was not charitable nor Christian. No wonder she no longer attends church service. The novel ends on a more positive note with Miss Smith no longer isolated from her village community as demonstrated by the villagers desperately searching through the ruins of Miss Smith's house after it was bombed.
A sequel, The War I Finally Won has just been recently published and details Ada's life after returning from London with Jamie and Miss Smith to Kent.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers 2015