Ten-year-old Ada has never left her squalid, one-room London apartment. Born with a clubfoot that her abusive and neglectful mother has left untreated, she sits in her chair and looks out the window all day. Caring for and protecting her little brother Jamie provides the only joy and meaning in her life, and ultimately motivates her to begin the painful process of teaching herself to walk. This is all taking place in the run-up to the second world war, though, and when the children of London are evacuated to the countryside, Ada's life changes in every way.
This is not the first novel that has seized on the evacuation of London's children to set its plot in motion. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Bedknobs and Broomsticks are two classic examples. But whereas the plots of those books rely on the benign neglect of the children's temporary guardians, The War That Saved My Life goes in the opposite direction. Only with Miss Susan Smith, their reluctant foster mother, do Ada and Jamie discover for the first time what it means to be cared for and loved.
My instinct is to be cautious in my assessment of this book, because my emotional reaction to it was strong, and because I listened to the audio version, which is narrated masterfully by the inimitable Jayne Entwistle (seriously, go listen to something she has narrated - she is just divine). After some thought, however, I feel confident in recommending it as both emotionally satisfying and finely crafted.
Ada and Susan Smith are nuanced, complex characters who grow in realistic ways throughout the course of the novel. Ada's traumatic experiences are given the narrative weight they deserve. As she begins the process of healing her psychological wounds, she runs up against the setbacks and regressions that would be inevitable for a child who has never felt safe or loved. Susan, who struggles with depression, and who is mourning the loss of her partner Becky, turns out to be the ideal parent for Ada. She approaches Ada and Jamie with patience, and with empathy born of her own experiences with parental disapproval.
If The War That Saved My Life excels in the areas of character development and emotional realism, however, I'm not sure I can say the same about the plot. The conclusion is satisfying and triumphant... as Tess Goldwasser said of Wonder, it makes you want to pump your fist in the air! As such, it stretches the bounds of credibility just a little bit. Ultimately, though, I have to forgive it that, and agree with the Horn Book's Martha Parravano that "this is a feel-good story, but an earned one." (Possibly unlike Wonder.)
It's early in the year, and there are some major challengers on the horizon (can't wait to get my hands on Gone Crazy in Alabama), but I can see The War That Saved My Life being a strong Newbery contender.
Published in January by Dial Books