The War I Finally Won concludes the story of Ada Smith and her own private war between herself and the world. The novel picks up the story where it left off in The War That Saved My Life. It is told by fourteen-year-old Ada looking back on events beginning on Monday September 15, 1940.
The War I Finally Won begins with Ada awakening from her surgery the next day to learn that her Mam has been killed in the bombing of the munitions factory where she worked. While six-year-old Jamie is devastated, Ada feels nothing because she knows her mother hated her and didn't want her.
Susan's concern about the funeral arrangements set Ada to worrying about whether or not they will be able to continue to live with her as they are now orphans. Still confined to bed, Ada learns from Susan that her mother's body was cremated and buried in a mass grave. Ada finally confesses her worry over the "arrangements" which she believes mean that Susan will abandon them.Susan comforts Ada by explaining that the "arrangements" she needed to make were regarding her mother's funeral. She explains that she will likely become Ada and Jamie's legal guardian. Ada also learns that Lady Thorton has offered them an abandoned cottage on the Thorton estate in which to live.
Even on an outing in a wheelchair, Ada finds herself worrying about money and taking care of herself and Jamie. Ada is told that Lord and Lady Thorton paid for her surgery but she doesn't like having to be grateful to Lady Thorton. Three days later, Ada gets her final cast cut off her foot and Susan presents her with a pair of shoes. The surgery is a resounding success with Ada is not only able to stand on her foot but also to walk and run, although the doctor tells her she will never have full mobility of her ankle.
Susan, Ada and Jamie travel back to Kent and set up house in the cottage on Thorton, with Ada and Jamie having their own rooms. Life begins to return to some sort of normalcy with Ada now able to ride her horse Butter astride like her friend Maggie Thorton. Fred Grimes, the Thorton's groom is thrilled for Ada. But the war continues to take its toll; Ada meets her friend Stephen White and learns that his entire family has been killed in the bombing of London and that he and his father will be joining the merchant marines.
Christmas sees Ada once again struggle emotionally. Her best friend Maggie Thorton returns from boarding school to invite Ada and her family over for Christmas dinner. Just before Christmas, Jamie breaks his arm in an attempt to climb a tree. Ada is determined to care for him despite Susan's assurances that it is her responsibility. But Christmas is a difficult time for Ada. She is upset at receiving a doll from Susan which she considers a child's gift, and is tense at having to attend a Christmas dinner at Thorton House. However, this is made bearable by Maggie's older brother, Jonathan who is a lieutenant in the RAF. During Christmas dinner at the Thorton's Susan asks Lord Thorton to help her find work. He is surprised to learn that Susan obtained a first from Oxford in maths and he offers her work immediately but it will mean placing Ada and Jamie in school. Susan refuses his offer, Lord Thorton promises to find her something.
On Boxing Day, Ada rides in a "paper chase" which Maggie explains is "like a fox hunt...only without foxes, or hunting."Ada enjoys the paper chase immensely but her best surprise is Susan's gift of Butter. Gradually Ada begins to settle into life on the Thorton estate; she volunteers to fire watch even though it means climbing the church steeple.
Then Lady Thorton moves in with Susan, Ada and Jamie after Thorton house is requisitioned by the British government. This is the beginning of some big changes in Ada's life, ones that will bring about a new friendship, a terrible loss and the beginning of healing for Ada.
The War I Finally Won is about one girl's war to overcome the physical and emotional trauma she experienced as a result of poverty and abuse to reclaim her life. In this sequel Ada must learn to how be a child, to leave the caring to the adults in her life. Perhaps even more importantly she must learn to trust.
After returning home from her surgery, eleven-year-old Ada Smith struggles with allowing herself to be cared for and to be a child. Ada was not wanted by her mother and not cared for; her club foot, a defect caused by the baby's position in the womb, could have been repaired at birth but was not. Ada was frequently punished by her mother by being placed in a small, roach-filled cupboard beneath the kitchen sink, she was not fed enough nor kept clean and she was kept a prisoner in her flat, never allowed to attend school. As a result she always feels unsafe and she considers herself the caretaker of herself and her brother.
Used to fending for herself and caring for her younger brother Jamie, Ada doesn't know how to be a child. When Jamie breaks his arm, Ada insists on caring for him, partly because this what she has always done and also because she doesn't trust Susan to do so.Adults are not to be trusted in Ada's world. Susan tells Ada to return to bed but Ada tells her, "It's my job to take care of him. Not yours." Susan tells her this is not her responsibility anymore. Susan attempts to prove to Ada that she, as an adult, is better suited to care for both Ada and her brother but questioning her as to what she would do if Jamie's condition worsened. Susan tries to explain to Ada that she doesn't necessarily have to feel safe to be safe, a point she makes when she takes Ada up in the church bell tower to fire watch.
Ada's worry about money and the cost of her care manifests itself in her questions about Susan's request to Lord Thorton to help her find work and that she too would like to help out. However, Susan points out to Ada, " 'You're eleven years old,' Susan said. 'You get to be the child now, Ada, for once in your life. I will be the adult.'..." Ada also struggles to understand the concept of guardianship and the meaning of the word "ward" which she takes to mean her care of Susan. Eventually Susan tells Ada her understanding of "ward" is archaic and that she is responsible for Ada's care.
The church steeple and fire watching are symbolic of Ada's belief that she must be ever-watchful for the possibility of bad things that might happen.Ada never feels safe; "I never did. Never once. Anything could happen anytime --Mam's death proved it..." She admits to Maggie that she is afraid of fire watching because she's afraid of being trapped, being pinned under rubble or like being "stuffed under the sink" and being unable to escape. "Only I still have to keep watch. I have to be careful, to keep bad things from happening again."
Ada's relationship with Susan gradually evolves into one of trust and love. Her younger brother Jamie has no problem considering Susan his mother and he even calls her mommy, telling Ruth "Our first mother is in heaven...Susan's our second." Ada admits it's difficult to accept this identity for Susan. "I flinched. All these months of Jamie calling Susan Mum, and I still couldn't get used to it. " Ada cannot yet accept Susan as her mother nor can she even admit that she might love Susan. "I wouldn't have told Susan I loved her even if I thought it was true. Words could be dangerous, as destructive as bombs." While Ada can't tell Susan how she feels Susan does tell Ada and Jamie that she loves them.
Lady Thorton and Susan's care of Ada and her brother eventually teach Ada how to love and to trust. Ada doesn't realize how much she loves her until Susan becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. After almost losing her, Ada confesses that she loves her dearly.It isn't until the end of the novel that Ada finally refers to Susan as "Mum".
The War I Finally Won also explores the theme of preconceived views of people. In the first novel, Ada was considered simple and unteachable by others because of what her mother had told others and because of her disability. This humiliated and angered her. In The War I Finally Won, considers the dangers of labelling all people from a certain group on the basis of generalization. In this novel, a young German girl, Ruth comes to stay at Thorton cottage. Lady Thorton refuses to allow Ruth to stay with them, stating "A German is a German is a German." Ada notes "...We saw Germans on the newsreels. They reminded me of Hitler with their cold dark eyes...You could tell by looking at them that they were evil." However she feels that Ruth "...looked normal enough to me." Fortunately, Lady Thorton is overruled by her more open-minded husband. Still Ada is not interested in being friends with Ruth reasoning that "Ruth could absolutely still have a wireless set. Or a bomb."
However, as they live together their views of Ruth change. Ada and Jamie learn that the creators of their favourite fairy tales were the German Brothers Grimm and that Ruth's home of Dresden "is a beautiful city, very cultured..." and that she is very much worried about her grandmother who lives there. Ada realizes that Lady Thorton is judging Ruth by what she knows of Hitler, that the longer she knows Ruth, the more ordinary she seems. Jonathan treats Ruth kindly and through his questions, Ada and the others learn about how Hitler has been treating the German Jews and that it is not a religious problem but one of race.
Ada and Ruth become friends by connecting through their mutual love of horses and riding. Ruth is not allowed to ride the Thorton's horses because she's German but Ada finds a way. This is because she recognizes the pain that Ruth is carrying and she believes "Ruth needed horses." She tells Susan, "Ruth needs horse the way I needed horses...The way Maggie needs them."
Ada comes to understand that she and Ruth are very much alike, both searching for their place in the world. Ruth tells Jamie, "I used to think I was German. I don't belong anywhere anymore..." just as Ada feels she doesn't belong anywhere either. It is during a ride that Ada is finally able to admit to Ruth about her club foot and how it made her mother not love her. When Ada gets into trouble over allowing Ruth to ride, she explains that when she is gifted with Lady Thorton's horse, Oban, Ada gives this horse to Ruth, whom she recognizes as the superior rider and because she knows the riding has helped Ruth in the same way it has healed Ada.
In the end, Susan and Lady Thorton's actions positively influence Ada, leading her to help them. Susan has taken care of Ada and Jamie, showing concern for them in many ways; Ada reciprocates this love by taking Susan to Becky's hometown where she can begin to heal the wounds of the past. Lady Thorton also cared for Ada during Susan's illness by taking Ada to visit her in the hospital and by taking her to the zoo; Ada reciprocates this love by using her saved money to travel to Maggie's school and bring her home when Lady Thorton sinks into a deep depression. "I'd know the right thing to do and I'd done it. I'd helped take care of Lady Thorton the way she'd helped take care of me."
By the end of the novel Ada is beginning to heal and is able to understand some of what has happened to her. For example Ada repeatedly states at the beginning of the novel "You can know things all you like, but that doesn't mean you believe them" Ada has been told and knows that her club foot is not her fault and that she is not to blame for her mother's unhappiness. But it isn't until Jamie points out to Ada that their mother was angry all the time at everything and not just at Ada that she comes to believe this. "It had never been about me. I couldn't breathe.I went to the window and looked out, seeing nothing, gripping the windowsill hard. It hadn't been my fault."
Eventually Ada becomes the girl she longed to be and much more; joyful, able to trust and to love but at the same time recognizing that she will always carry the scars of her previous life. She is on her way to winning her own personal war. "My foot would never be all the way right, but I could walk and climb and run. My feelings might never be all the way right either, but they were healed enough."
Brubaker Bradley has crafted a cast of realistic, memorable characters in The War I Finally Won. The story is driven by many remarkable characters; Ada Smith who is intelligent and resilient, Susan whose own painful past has helped her to understand Ada, Maggie and Ruth who are strong and supportive in spite of their own terrible losses, Lady Thorton whose upper class propriety masks a warm heart and Jonathan whose generous nature leads him to make the ultimate sacrifice. All of the major characters experience their own personal journey, offering lessons in forgiveness, acceptance and trust while the secondary characters help to fill out the story line.
The War I Finally Won will appeal to young teen readers, as well as adults. It also has the possibility to be a great aloud read for teachers. A fitting conclusion to a well-written pair of novels for young readers.
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers 2017