Books for Young(er) People: The War That Saved My Life

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Author: Kyla Sterling


Ada has never been outside. Not just outside the building in which she lives, but even outside the little one-room apartment she shares with her mother and brother. Ada has a twisted foot, and her mother is ashamed of it – and refuses to let her daughter speak or be seen by anyone. Ada is growing up, though, and realizing she wants more from her life than just sitting by the window and being abused by her mother. And more than anything, she’s terrified of what will happen when her younger brother, Jamie, inevitably grows up and leaves her alone with her mother forever. So when Jamie comes home from school one day and announces that all the kids are being sent away somewhere, Ada decides she’s going with him. And so they go – joining two hundred children as they’re evacuated from London in anticipation of the Blitz. When they arrive in the countryside, no one wants to take them in, since they’re filthy, malnourished, and surly-looking…and thus they end up foisted off on Susan Smith, who missed the chance to choose her evacuees since she is herself battling crippling depression after losing a loved one. Against the backdrop of the Second World War, the three of them have to come to terms with the new situation and make the best of it.

The title – The War That Saved My Life – is brilliant in several different ways. Ada spends the whole book being saved in different ways: from bombs, from her mother, from her horrible upbringing. Jamie is saved from the ghost of a future where he coasts through school and grows up to do who-knows-what. And Susan is slowly saved from her own demons. It’s never easy, though, and that’s part of what made this book great. This book deals with some very young people (Ada is around 11 years old, Jamie is 6) going through some very adult situations, and it is absolutely never condescending.

The world of the book is a dark one, given its setting. Rationing hits their seaside town hard, and they’re all constantly warned to be on the lookout for German spies. The RAF builds a base across the street from Susan’s house, and the small family spends several nights in their bomb shelter while the Luftwaffe tries to destroy it during the Battle of Britain. It’s not all doom and gloom, though – there are several lighter episodes, mostly involving Ada’s attempts to learn to ride horseback. The gentleness of Susan’s pony, Butter, is exactly what she needs most, and her efforts help her learn to interact with humans as well as horses.

Despite the heavy subject matter, I still found the book enjoyable. This is solid historical fiction, and it tells a unique story I haven’t already read a dozen times. Ada is a character you can really root for, especially since you spend the whole book in her head. (If you weren’t privy to her internal monologue, some of her panic attacks could come off as trivial, but that’s thankfully avoided.) I actually brought this book home to finish (I usually limit myself to my lunch break at work) because I got so invested in Ada’s story, and Susan’s story, and wanting so badly for their little sparks of hope to catch on.

Things to Know: Ada (and Jamie, to a lesser extent) has been horribly abused, and the resulting trauma is faced head-on. She has severe PTSD, which is not shied away from, and the war doesn’t help. Some of the abuse happens onscreen (at the beginning and the end), and it is always shown bluntly for what it is. Also, this is a book about World War II. Ships are sunk (Ada sees a newsreel and it triggers her), planes are crashed (and the fact that the kids know some of the pilots is addressed), and there’s a general tension throughout the story. The Dunkirk Evacuation is a plot point, and it brings many wounded soldiers to town – and some of them die onscreen.

The children are very young, so there’s no sexual content, and no drug usage. Though it’s never explicitly stated, the more Susan described her life with Becky, the more I was convinced their relationship was a romantic one. There are a couple “bloodys” thrown around, though Ada explicitly mentions it’s a word they’re not allowed to use. I’d say it’s a solid middle grade book, for around ages 10-13.