I’m taking a brief break from picture books today to yawp about a new children’s novel I fell into and enjoyed immensely. The War That Saved My Life was written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, an author not at all new to historical fiction. Her most recent book for children, Jefferson’s Sons—a fictionalized account of the latter part of Thomas Jefferson's life at Monticello told through the point of view of three of his slaves—was met with starred reviews all-around, and Kirkus called it “a big, serious work of historical investigation and imagination.” This is a genre Bradley knows well and one whose rewards and challenges she embraces. “I love exploring how ordinary people lived in other time periods,” she explains. “In school, you learn about the sweeping changes, the wars and empires, but not the regular people. The greatest challenge is figuring out what you don't know—you can miss whole chunks of stuff simply by not exploring a topic fully.”
But in The War That Saved My Life, readers can rest assured Bradley has done her homework and done it well. The novel tells the story of 9-year-old Ada, born with a club foot and living in squalor in London during World War II. While her brother Jamie attends school and runs free, Ada is never allowed to leave the house. Her sullen and ill-natured mother, Mam, is ashamed of her disability and showers her with abuse. This includes frequent trips to a tiny kitchen cupboard, where Ada hides in the dark, surrounded by cockroaches. Ada inhabits the lies Mam spouts about her lot in life, while also yearning to be free: She believes she’s a disgraceful child, incapable of learning, whose club foot is all her fault and only brings misery to others.
But during the evacuation of children during the war, Ada and her brother are sent to live with a woman in the country. Susan never asked for children and likes to say she’s not at all nice, but she responds with pity and a distant, yet growing, affection toward the children, even seeking the care and attention of a doctor for Ada’s foot. Susan must work hard to acclimate to the presence of these children, especially given they arrive during her own time of mourning over the death of Becky, the woman she lived with and whom she clearly loved. Ada, a child not accustomed to kindness, fights Susan’s generous overtures every step of the way. But when Mam eventually returns, much to her horror, she comes to understand it’s a life she can’t possibly leave—and that, more importantly, she’s worthy of love.
“It's really hard for me to say where this story came from,” Bradley says when I ask if she remembers this story’s first sparks of life. “It's not like any of my other novels. I was researching first-person accounts of World War II and the homefront in England, and the child evacuations always interested me, but Ada herself seemed to spring out of nowhere—and then Susan, and then Jamie. I had arguments with Jamie in my dreams. This one was somehow buried in my subconscious.”
Most impressive in this novel, which does many things well, is Ada’s narration. Her language is simple and precise and manages to be evocative at the same time. “I love precise language,” Bradley explains, “but nailing Ada's voice was a real struggle for me. The first part of the novel went through over half-a-dozen drafts until I got it right. She needs to sound matter-of-fact; if she sounded emotionally overwhelmed, the reader would be overwhelmed too—and would set the book aside.”
And how hard was it to write in the voice of the odious Mam? I had to ask. “Honestly, it wasn't hard to write about her. I'm actually sort of stunned to see how much people hate her—and how monstrous they think she is. I mean, I agree she's monstrous, but somehow…well, my own mother is a gentle, loving person, but Mam wasn't that much of a stretch for me. What that says about me I don't know. I'm also surprised that some people want to know more about Mam's motivation. Evil needs a motivation? I never thought so. What motivated Hitler?”
Those moved by Ada’s story will be pleased to know that next on Bradley’s plate is a sequel. “It's my first true sequel,” she adds, “but I knew all along that Ada's story didn't end at the close of The War That Saved My Life.”
Happy news, indeed, for fans of historical fiction and readers, like me, who were swept away by Ada’s tale.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.