The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley starts off in an ugly place. Ada and her brother Jamie live in desperate circumstances, with an angry, abusive mother who doesn’t let Ada go outside at all. Ada is a “cripple,” a shame, and an embarrassment. When it’s announced that city children are going to be sent to the country because of the coming war and fears of bombing, her mother announces that Jamie will go, but Ada will stay. No one would want Ada, anyway.
Ada has realized that she is more and more alone as Jamie has gotten older, so she engineers an escape, pretending that she’s just hurt her foot in an accident so that she will be able to go with Jamie to the country. They are the last children left from their train and are forced on a single woman, Susan, who clearly doesn’t want them. Susan does her duty, though, and over time, with much difficulty, they become a family of sorts.
Gail Carson Levine recently dealt with the issue of piling troubles on a character in her wonderful blog on writing. It’s hard to do well, and doing it well means that a character can face seemingly endless setbacks. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just seems forced.
When I wrote recently about the books we loathe, it was the forced version of awful lives that was bothering me. I just couldn’t care about those characters. They were not likeable people, and at some point, they were going to have to do something different if their lives were going to be better. It might be realistic to have them keep repeating harmful behaviors – I have seen that kind of thing a lot in my life – but it doesn’t make me connect with them or want to keep reading a book about them.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradly brings Ada and Jamie to you when they are in a horrible place. Things don’t get better right away, but you care about them. You see how there is a tiny bit of hope inside Ada, and how she can use her stubborn side to survive and begin to grow. Ada and Jamie and the others are not perfect, but there is a spark there that makes them interesting. So I kept reading.
I wasn’t a big fan of the ending, but it does resolve some problems. I kind of wished that Ada had been able to engineer another escape instead of being rescued, but in the end, it might have been the right way to go. For her, for Susan, for her angry mother and for Jamie.