Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Call me dumpling, if this isn't a Newbery contender for 2016. The historical details, character development, tight plot, and rich layered themes make this firecracker sizzle. Ten-year-old Ada has a clubfoot and is kept locked in her family's one bedroom apartment while her six-year-old brother, Jaimie, roams free in London, England. Mam hits her two children and punishes Ada by locking her in the cabinet under the sink. World War II is about to happen, and parents are sending children to the countryside for safety.

Mam plans to send Jaimie, but not Ada, "Nice people don't want to look at that foot." Ada sneaks off with Jaimie to join other evacuees on a train to Kent. Expecting 70 children but receiving 200, the children line up in a building near the station and are chosen by families, but no one picks Ada and Jaimie. The "iron-faced" woman organizing the placement takes the two to a house where the owner, Susan Smith, says she doesn't want any children to care for. The reason for Susan's reluctance is slowly revealed and though she claims she is not nice, her actions show the opposite. She suffers with bouts of depression and the three form a family bond that helps them all move forward in life and deal with suffering.

The ironic title of this book refers not only to the physical war, but the internal and daily battles faced by the characters. War is about death and destruction, not saving; however, there are times when "some things are worth fighting for." WWII meant fighting against loss of freedoms, lands, and extreme prejudices. Most people didn't want to go to war and avoided it until it became necessary. For Ada, "There are all kinds of wars." She talks about her war with Jaimie whom she has raised instead of their negligent mother. She talks about her war with her mother who hits her in order to shame and control her. She sees Susan war with people who act prejudiced toward her disability. She sees Jamie war with his fears. She sees Susan war with her grief. The war theme builds like a wet snowball rolling down a snowy hill getting bigger and bigger until it rests at the bottom doubled in size. The author keeps building on various themes and advances the plot pointing to those themes. This is just one element in  Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's impressive writing that makes this book unforgettable.

*spoiler* I want to use this book for book club next fall so the following is more detailed than usual so I'll remember my first impressions.

Daily life is filled with peace and joy and battles and wars. Ada's life is no different except her conditions are more extreme. She battles the prejudice of her mother and others over her clubfoot. She battles hunger on a daily basis. She battles her feelings. She battles being touched by another human. She battles looking forward to the future with hope. She battles being illiterate. Ada is tired of being ignorant of the world and the words in it. She's been locked up in a room and never let outside. On the train, she asks Jaimie what the green stuff is out the window. Even the word, "grass," is not in her vocabulary. Like someone trying to learn a foreign language, words exhaust her and it is no surprise that she resists Susan's efforts to educate her. It is not until she makes friends with Maggie that she is motivated to read and write.

Ada is a survivor, courageous, and persistent. Horses respond to her and when she decides to make her pony jump a wall, she just about kills herself in the effort. She battles back no matter how many times life throws her off a horse. Her physical hunger is nothing compared to her emotional hunger for love, hope, and freedom. When she finds it with Susan, it scares her to heck because she knows their set-up is temporary until the war is over. Ada shuts Susan out to protect herself, but Susan is just as strong-willed as her and she jumps her walls. Jaimie is left-handed and being abused by the teacher. Susan figures it out and rescues him showing she is willing to fight for the two children. The relationship changes from caring to loving - the three are evolving into a family with all its ups and downs. At the end, when Susan doesn't battle for them, it is no surprise that she changes her mind and tracks down Mam and the kids. At the end when Susan tells Ada and Jaimie that they saved her life, the story has come full circle.

Both children have fears. Jaimie has tantrums and wets the bed while Susan is afraid of being hit and sent away. When Jaimie finds a mean cat that is full of fleas and matted hair, he names it Bovril after a nasty drink that Susan makes the children take each night for their health. The cat, Bovril, is loved and cared for by Jaimie. He stops wetting the bed as soon as they keep the cat and after he washes the mangy creature he brings it down wrapped in Susan's "best towel." The parallel with the children is striking for Susan took in two bedraggled children that no one else wanted and gave them the best of herself and home. When Jaimie tells Susan that "nice people" hate Ada's clubfoot, she says they are in luck because she is not a nice person. Ada tries to convince herself of this, but knows it isn't true. "She was 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." Ada reminds herself all the time that Susan is not a nice person so that she won't become attached to her. She knows that the situation is temporary and she copes by detaching herself.

Another overarching theme besides battles and wars, is the difference between lying and liars. Susan distinguishes "lying" as a way of self-preservation or protecting oneself while "liars" do it to make themselves important. Ada lies about her last name when she meets Susan. Later, when Ada tells the truth, it is easy to see why Susan doesn't believe her about riding Maggie's horse. The two learn to be honest and trust each other as they learn to understand each other. The author shows but does not tell these differences and much of it must be inferred by the reader. As the story progresses, Ada chooses to not lie about the spy, nor does she lie with her mother. She slowly turns from lies to the truth and it allows her to move forward emotionally and become a stronger person. Mam is a liar that bullies Ada to make herself feel important. Mam says that fixing Ada's foot is a lie, even though Ada knows it is possible. By not fixing Ada's foot, Mam feels superior. Susan lies about Divinity school to attack the school teacher's prejudice and abuse of Jaimie. Her lie was protective. Stephen lies to the Colonel because he knows that the Colonel needs full-time care. His lie was to help the Colonel not feel useless in the war. Lies are a big part of the author's character development and Ada learns through lies how she can change her life into one of truth and hope for a better life. 

Ada breaks Susan's sewing machine and is terrified she'll be sent back to London. Ada's terror is not normal and shows how traumatized she has been by her mother's abuse. She also pushes aside her emotions and doesn't address them. She calls it going inside her head. Her psychological and physical abuse make her difficult to handle and Susan doesn't always get it right. Both Ada and Susan are persistent, strong-willed, and stubborn. Susan can't tell Ada to read and write but tricks her into it. Later when Ada realizes that Maggie was mad at her for not writing, she is motivated to learn. Susan tricks Ada into doing other things she refuses to do making for some funny moments. Susan's dry humor helps balance the characters heavy issues. The two females learn from each other. When Ada decides to make a present in her room, Susan says she has to spend equal the time with her that she spends alone. She's grown to like her company and Ada unknowingly is helping Susan deal with her grief. Ada goads Susan into volunteering for the war. Susan tries to get Ada to accept herself and not be ashamed of her foot, "your foot's a long way from your brain." When Ada later uses it against the prejudiced officer, Susan's influence is apparent as Ada finds the courage to stand-up for herself and see her self-worth.

Susan's read alouds show how the kids are relating the characters in the stories to their lives. Ada feels that she is like "Alice in Wonderland" who has fallen down the rabbit hole into a strange new world. Jaimie feels like he is on an adventure like the "Swiss Family Robinson." Literature engages and empowers young readers into understanding themselves and the world around them. Ada is learning empathy and through narrative fiction she can get inside a fictional character's mind to understand his or her feelings, motivations, and emotions. This safe place in the fictional world lets her risks and learn through characters triumphs and mistakes, then relate it to herself with empathy, and not have any real-world consequences. This is the power of reading.

I do so like books that answer questions right away and then take it one step further in an unexpected way. Brandon Sanderson does this and so does Bradley. For instance, when Ada keeps refusing to go to tea with the Colonel, I thought she was embarrassed by her clubfoot and I know that she feels awkward socially. Later she confesses to Stephen that she is afraid of not doing the right thing. Perhaps a better example is when Susan debates the teacher on her superstition of left-handedness. It could have been left with just the dialogue, but she explains the root of the superstition in the Bible. The author digs deeper into the psyche of characters bringing out their complexities that engages me more as a reader.

Bradley has already established herself as an author that pays attention to historical details. Read "Jefferson's sons" and you will see what I mean. Here, she goes into details regarding the war and maintaining stables and horses. The women sewing blackout curtains and building a rickety, smelly bomb shelter are just two of many examples. Others include the newsreels, that disseminated information to the public before the movies, to the propaganda posters littering the city. The Germans circled the island and sunk ships trying to import or export goods laying siege to England and affecting the food supply. Another fact that parents evacuated their children from London and then took them back endangering their lives when the London Blitz occurred was one I didn't know about. The historical details oftentimes tie in with larger themes, especially the posters such as "Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might." Not only is England's freedom in peril, but Ada and Jaimie's freedom living with Susan is in peril when their Mam takes them back.

The psychological progression of Ada wanting Susan to not give her things shows Ada clinging to the emotional detachment as a coping mechanism from being abused. Ada rejects Susan's help over and over. Later while reading "Swiss Family Robinson" she thinks "I was tired of those idiots living on an island with everything they wanted." She doesn't want to be given things. Again, her attitude is about self-preservation. Ada has a meltdown when Susan makes her a velvet dress and calls her beautiful. She reveals "It was too much, all this emotion."She can't see herself as anything but ugly. She doesn't want to love Susan and hope for a better life. Worse, she doesn't want to love herself.

When the war comes to their town and Susan and Ada help the Dunkirk soldiers, Ada learns that she is useful. She also recognizes that she is winning battles against her fears and becoming stronger. "There was a Before Dunkirk version of me and an After Dunkirk version. The After Dunkirk version was stronger, less afraid." Later, when she sees a spy and reports it, she is strong enough to overcome the prejudiced officer that tries to dismiss her. When she stands up to her mother and admits the horrible truth about how she does not care about her or Jaimie, she shows her self-acceptance not only of herself but her mother. When she is lauded a hero for capturing a spy, she sees herself, "As if I'd been born with two strong feet." This is a long way from the ashamed girl that first showed up on Susan's doorstep.

Susan's depression comes from the death of her partner, Becky. The family has disowned Susan, especially her clergyman father, and no one talks about it. Historically, it would have not been discussed openly and if the author had made it a subplot it would have put the book in the young adult section. Children's interest in sexuality begins more in middle school than elementary and had the author emphasized it, the novel would have missed its audience. As is, some readers will miss the implied relationship, while others will notice it hovering in the background and affecting Susan. This choice by the author lets the focus remain on the characters, and it would have detracted from the main themes. Decide for yourself. You really don't want to miss this one.

5 Smileys

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