Let me start off by saying that my experience has been that it’s fairly rare to find a book and its sequel that are equally well written and compelling. However, I’m happy to say that The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley are solid exceptions to the rule!
This is another set of books that my 11 year-old son and I read together…though he was 9 when we started. We finished Saved My Life in 2017 before the sequel was released and then got caught up in all the other books we wanted to read and didn’t get to Finally Won until earlier this year (although it was published in late 2017.) I was interested to see that the two books have almost exactly the same star rating (about 4.5) on Goodreads as that is pretty much exactly how we found them: both very good and worthy of an equally high rating!
Both books revolve around the life of Ada and her brother Jamie. Ada is definitely the protagonist and when we are first introduced to her we find her suffering the effects of a clubfoot and being mistreated and locked in a one-room flat (and sometimes even locked in the cupboard in that flat) by her mother. Ada’s only view of the world is what she can see from the her one window to the street…she has never been outside and has no friends or companions aside from her brother. She is repeatedly beaten, told that she is dumb and made to feel that she is defective due to her disability.
As circumstances would have it, when bombing begins in London, she and Jamie have the opportunity to be sent to the English countryside as evacuees. Under some duress, Ada’s mother allows them both to go and, although Ada struggles to make the trip, she succeeds in doing so and is taken in by a local woman named Susan Smith.
Susan has recently dealt with some tragedy in her own life and is living alone in a big house with plenty of room and resources for the children. While her recent loss and the ensuing depression make Susan reticent to take in the children, she does so at the encouragement of the local Woment’s Volunteer Association. Although Ada is deeply scarred by her life experiences to date and makes it difficult to get close to her, Susan comes to love Ada and Jamie and begins to teach them what a ‘normal’ life could look like for them. While the events of the war seem to have improved Ada’s lot in life considerably (getting her away from her mother and allowing her to experience Susan’s care and the world around her) it seems inevitable that, as the war progresses, she will be forced to return to the circumstances from whence she came. Having witnessed Ada’s development as she tastes some love and freedom, it’s hard for the reader to imagine how she might cope with returning to her flat and her mother’s mistreatment.
I won’t spoil the events leading up to the books outcome for you, but suffice it to say that, somehow, Ada and Jamie are permitted to remain with Susan. As the book’s title implies, while World War II rages around them in England and takes countless lives from amongst the English and others, it is that same war that ultimately saves Ada’s life and frees her from her mother’s control.
This story is a delight to read: the characters that Brubaker Bradley draws in Saved My Life are rich and nuanced. She clearly depicts Ada as the survivor of abuse and allows the reader to see the damage that such treatment has caused to Ada’s psyche and confidence. Her gentle treatment of Ada’s (and Susan’s) struggles with PTSD and depression are admirable and touching…you can watch compassionately as both women struggle to overcome battles in their own minds.
There are other minor story threads that flow through the book as well. We are introduced to the wealthy neighbors, Lord and Lady Thornton and their children Maggie and Johnathan and get to experience how the war impacted those of greater means. There’s also the story of how Susan came to be living alone in her big house with no family…it’s a nuanced topic that some young readers may not pick up on but, I must admit, to my surprise, my 9 year old son ‘got it’ immediately. I was impressed with Brubaker Bradley’s willingness to take on a topic that would have been incredibly controversial at the time (still is, in some ways) and weave it into the story in a sensitive and natural way.
Ok…if you’ve only read Saved My Life and don’t want to know anything about Finally Won before you pick it up…stop reading now! You can get your copy knowing that it’s just as satisfying a read as Saved My Life and come back here to read my thoughts when you’ve finished!
So my thoughts on the second book: equally rich, equally compelling. The War I Finally Won takes up Ada’s story from the time when she came to live permanently with Susan. Ada, Susan and Jamie have changed residences (for reasons that will become apparent when you read Saved My Life) and are now living with Lady Thornton (and Maggie when she is home from boarding school.) Susan has paid for foot surgery for Ada and the family is dealing with the war that is raging on their doorstep. Food rations, potato picking, fire watches and the like are all part of their daily lives as they try to survive in a world that is being torn apart by World War II.
Three major developments take place in this book: 1) A young German refugee named Ruth comes to live with Ada, Susan, Jamie and Lady Thornton, 2) A tragedy befalls the family as part of the war and 3) Susan becomes very ill and requires hospitalization. Throughout the book, the reader sees these three events folded together to bring the book to its eventual close…how they deal with Ruth, face their tragedy and learn about the depth of their love for one another in the face of Susan’s illness are the major themes that frame the second book overall.
Readers get to spend more time with Lady Thornton and her family members in this sequel and will get to know Ruth (and see the impact of the war on Germans who did not follow Hitler.) We also learn about suffering and strength and what it can do to people’s characters. Finally, we get to see Ada come to terms with her history and understand that she is lovable and that her mother’s assertions about her defectiveness were nothing more than the ravings of a women who was inherently ‘broken’ herself.
Jamie continues to provide comic relief in this second book and Ada continues to establish herself as a fighter…she faces adversity and her own fear with courage and aplomb. Perhaps most heartwarming within this second book is Susan’s story: we finally learn more about her past and come to understand her depression, her strength and her willingness and ability to love Ada and Jamie through their struggles. The combination of Ada’s and Susan’s characters, is, to my mind, one of the best pairings I have encountered in a book in a long time. They will tear at your heartstrings, have you in tears and leave you with warm laughter.
I can’t recommend these two books enough…they read like older books of the same style (think Anne of Green Gables or Little Women) but are somewhat more modern and forward thinking. There’s lots to learn about World War II and the state of affairs of that time in Europe but neither book reads as ‘educational’ (a curse to the 11 year old, I assure you!) There’s a lot to uncover in each book and I’m sure you could read each one repeatedly and find new and different topics to consider and discuss. Brubaker Bradley does an amazing job drawing this ‘family’ together and making the reader truly care about what happens as they build their story together! Read them in order, for sure…but definitely take the opportunity to read them. You won’t regret it!
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