Have you ever seen an abused or neglected pet? A creature that nobody loved? They huddle at the corners of our towns and houses, too frightened to approach us for help. Have you watched them with their matted coats and terrified eyes, keeping their distance on unsteady feet? If you have, you’ve seen Ada Smith, the narrator of The War That Saved My Life.
Of course Ada isn’t a dog or a horse; she’s a girl, somewhere around ten. Ada doesn’t know what age she is because she doesn’t know her birthday. Ada doesn’t know how to read, or write, or even walk very well. She has a club foot and is never allowed to leave her Mam’s one-room London flat. Ada’s only real connection to the world outside is her little brother, Jaime. When Mam says Jaime’s being sent to the country because Hitler is going to bomb London, Ada decides to follow her brother. In the process, she becomes one of the few English children who could thank Germany for starting a war.
Over 800,000 children were evacuated from England’s city centers during “Operation Pied Piper“. Some of them were relocated overseas but the majority were resettled in rural England; all were separated from places and people they knew. It was an emotionally devastating policy that put much of Britain’s future in the hands of unqualified, under-prepared strangers and some evacuees found the poor treatment Ada expects. What she and Jaime encounter is, for them, more challenging: a reluctant host who treats them well.
What follows is a remarkable exercise in unreliable narration on Ada’s part. From birth she’s been raised on two articles of faith: that mothers love children and she is a monster. When Susan, the woman who shelters them, describes herself “as not a nice person” Ada accepts that as well. The problems come from reconciling her beliefs with the facts.
“She was not a nice person, but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot… and gave us two of her own clean shirts to wear…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.”
This is Ada’s first experience with sheets (the smooth thin blankets), good food, and regular baths as well as grown ups that think well of her. Like an abused or feral animal she shies away from kindness and anticipates abuse as her due. She can barely begun to respond to this kinder, rural world of peace when the War comes roaring back in.
The greatest blessing of historical fiction is how it connects us to remote events and animates them through the eyes of the story. Some sixth graders may have heard of World War II and a few of those may have heard of Dunkirk but this book helps them understand it by seeing it through the eyes of Ada. Here we see not the tired-but-cheerful soldiers that animated the newsreels but the barely controlled panic of a sea-side village deluged with the wounded and dying. The war becomes as real a threat as Ada’s abusive parent and the lessons she learns in fighting one aid her battle with the other.
I love historical fiction and kid lit but seldom have I seen one book shine in both genres. The War that Saved My Life is a brilliant exception. It deserves every award it got. Read it, share it, talk about it with kids and when you see a victim of abuse, remember you’re looking at Ada.