“Ada,” get back from that window!” begins Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s “The War That Saved My Life” (book from Dial, audio from Listening Library;7.5 hours; ages 11 and up). Jayne Entwistle’s representation of Ada’s cruel Mam is chilling, threatening. Immediately, the listener feels as wary as Ada, the heroine who has learned to expect the horrific. The menace continues, but 9-year-old Ada has the spine to talk back, defend her right to look out the window from which she watches her brother Jamie play.“And why shouldn’t he be playing? He’s not a cripple, not like you,” is her mother’s next vitriolic affront. Entwistle imbues each word with sneering coldness. Mam asks for Ada to cut bread and dripping for herself, for her son Jamie “and if there’s any left throw it out the window.”
All the while, during this ugly encounter, Ada works to disguise blood from her club foot, the physical ailment that makes her mother call her a monster. Listeners fear for Ada, knowing her mother has beaten her bloody and locked her overnight in a smelly damp cupboard under the sink with hundreds of roaches. The blood comes from Ada’s attempts to walk. At first, she’s done this so that she won’t seem such an abomination to her mother, so that she can earn her mother’s love. But Ada has come to suspect this is a futile dream.
It’s the summer of 1939, and Ada and Jamie soon hear of children being evacuated from London. Ada determines that she and her brother will go. And suddenly, when they’ve gotten on a transport, Ada realizes, “We’d escaped everything. Mam. Hitler’s bombs. My one-room prison. Everything.” As Ada says, it’s “Hitler’s war that set me free.”
She and her brother Jamie are sent to Kent, billeted with a grouchy single woman, Susan, who doesn’t want evacuees, has been bullied into taking the two children by a bossy official. Right away, listeners breathe a sigh of relief, for Susan’s compassion is as obvious as her insecurity about caring for her charges. Soon, it’s revealed that she is still grieving the death of a woman who was her best friend. And listeners suspect Susan and Ada, two outsiders, are meant to heal each other.
Ada thrives in the country—she teaches herself to ride Susan’s horse Butter, learns to read and discovers that her foot might have been healed if her Mam had done even minimal caretaking. The brutal beginning of this book makes Ada’s wariness clear. The tension she has with the woman who takes her in and the understanding Susan further illuminate the damage that Ada’s Mam has caused. Despite Susan’s reaching out, Ada fears investing in a new relationship that she might lose and is prickly about having to accept help. Susan, however, is an extraordinary healer— kind, honest, and endlessly willing to explain to Ada what 10 years of deprivation has stolen from her and to tell her of all that life has to offer.
“The War That Saved My Life” has an intensity and layering that requires sophisticated listeners. Packed with emotions, dramatic scenes, and believable character growth, neither teens, nor their parents will end this listening experience unaffected.
Susie Wilde (pictured below) has reviewed for magazines and papers across the country for 30 years. When not reviewing, she leads writing residencies for children, teaches adults how to write children’s books and shares stories with children and adults. She’s usually sporting headphones as she listens nonstop to adult and children’s audiobooks. Read more blogs about books and audios for all ages at ignitingwriting.com/blog.