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The War That Saved My Life Summary, Characters and Themes

“The War That Saved My Life” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is an emotionally gripping novel set against the tumultuous backdrop of World War II.

It tells the story of Ada, a young girl with a clubfoot, who, along with her brother Jamie, embarks on a journey from abuse and confinement to liberation and self-discovery in the midst of war-torn England.

Summary

Set against the backdrop of World War II in London, the story revolves around 10-year-old Ada. Born with a clubfoot, Ada has been confined to a one-room apartment by her abusive mother, Mam, who is ashamed of Ada’s disability. 

Alongside her brother Jamie, Ada escapes from their oppressive life in London to the safety of a rural village in Kent. Here, they find refuge with Susan Smith, a compassionate single woman who offers them a home.

As war looms over England, Ada and Jamie’s lives undergo transformative changes. Ada discovers a newfound freedom in riding Susan’s horse, Butter, experiencing mobility without pain for the first time. Meanwhile, Jamie faces challenges at school, including a prejudiced teacher who forces him to write with his right hand.

The narrative takes a turn when Susan steps up not only as a caretaker but also as a protector. Ada’s initial resentment towards Susan grows when she learns that Butter is being neglected. However, their relationship evolves as Susan responds with understanding and kindness to various situations, including Ada breaking her sewing machine.

Susan’s nurturing presence opens up new horizons for Ada. She learns to read, write, and even sew. Efforts to treat Ada’s clubfoot are hindered by their mother’s lack of response to Susan’s letters seeking permission for surgery. Ada’s attempts to reach out to her mother also end in disappointment, fueling her anger and confusion.

The novel reaches a crescendo as Ada displays remarkable bravery and resourcefulness during the war, even thwarting a spy, thus becoming a local hero. However, the return of their mother and subsequent events bring the siblings back to London, plunging them once again into a life of abuse.

A dramatic turn of events leads to a reunion with Susan in the aftermath of a bombing in London. The trio returns to Kent, only to find their home destroyed—a twist of fate that underscores the novel’s themes of perseverance, hope, and the transformative power of love and acceptance.

“The War That Saved My Life” masterfully explores the complexities of familial relationships, the impact of war on the innocent, and the journey from vulnerability to strength, making it a compelling read for young audiences.

Characters

Ada Smith

Ada is a ten-year-old girl, unaware of her real age. 

Born with a clubfoot, she is the target of her mother’s shame and abuse, leading to a life of isolation and physical ailments like rickets and impetigo. 

Under the care of Susan, however, Ada blossoms. She overcomes her physical and emotional scars, gains confidence, and evolves from an abused child into a heroic figure, rescuing others and learning to walk and read.

Mam

Mam, the antagonist and mother of Ada and Jamie, is depicted as a deeply flawed character. Working nights at a pub and later at a factory, she struggles with the frustrations of single parenthood and the shame of Ada’s disability. 

Mam’s abusive behavior towards her children reveals her inability to cope with her circumstances. 

Unlike Susan, who also didn’t want children but shows kindness, Mam’s character lacks redeeming qualities, exemplified by her desire to keep Ada crippled and under control.

Jamie (James) Smith

Jamie, Ada’s six-year-old brother, is a hopeful yet traumatized child. 

Initially malnourished and neglected, his life improves under Susan’s care. Jamie is fascinated by airplanes and is hopeful for a family reunion, despite the realities of his mother’s abuse. 

He looks up to Ada as his protector and suffers from bed-wetting, a sign of his traumatic experiences with Mam.

Susan Smith

A single woman residing in a Kent village, Susan initially takes in Ada and Jamie reluctantly. 

Describing herself as not particularly nice and uninterested in motherhood, Susan’s character contrasts sharply with her actions. She lovingly cares for Ada and Jamie, helping them heal from their traumas. 

Her background includes a strained relationship with her father and the loss of her best friend, Becky. 

Susan’s journey with the children leads her out of depression, indicating that while the children were saved physically, she was saved emotionally.

The War That Saved My Life Summary

Key Themes

1. Overcoming Adversity and Embracing Self-Worth

Central to the novel is the theme of overcoming adversity, as epitomized by the protagonist, Ada. 

Born with a clubfoot, she faces not only physical constraints but also emotional and psychological abuse from her mother. This abuse is a towering obstacle, yet Ada’s journey is one of discovering her own worth and capabilities. Her ability to ride Butter, the horse, symbolizes not just freedom of movement but also a liberation from the confines of her disability and societal prejudices. 

This theme is a beacon of hope, showing that inner strength can lead to transcendence over physical and emotional trials.

2. The Impact of War on Innocent Lives 

The backdrop of World War II plays a critical role in the narrative, highlighting the theme of the impact of war on innocent lives. 

The war acts as both a literal and metaphorical catalyst for change in the lives of the characters. For Ada and Jamie, the war precipitates their escape from abuse and leads them to Susan’s nurturing care. 

The war’s dangers and uncertainties parallel the turmoil within Ada’s heart, reflecting how external conflicts can mirror internal struggles. 

This theme subtly underscores how war alters lives, often bringing unforeseen challenges but also opportunities for growth and change.

3. The Power of Love and Acceptance in Healing

At its heart, the book explores the transformative power of love and acceptance. 

Susan’s unconditional love and acceptance of Ada and Jamie is a stark contrast to the rejection and abuse they faced from their mother. This newfound love and care enable the children, especially Ada, to begin healing from their traumatic past. 

The theme extends to self-acceptance as well, particularly in Ada’s journey towards accepting her disability and recognizing her own value. 

It underscores the message that love, both from others and oneself, is a powerful force in overcoming life’s obstacles and finding healing and peace.

Final Thoughts

“The War That Saved My Life” is a powerful narrative that masterfully blends historical context with the personal struggles and growth of its characters. 

Bradley’s storytelling is both poignant and inspiring, highlighting the indomitable spirit of a young girl overcoming physical and emotional challenges. This book is not just a journey through historical events, but an exploration of what it means to find family and self-worth in the most unlikely places.

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