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the war that saved my life

18 january 2016

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's Newbery Honor book The War That Saved My Life is a historical novel, but it's not what you'd call realistic. Still, it has a certain fairy-tale energy to it. Narrator Ada has grown up disabled, in appalling indigence, in mid-20th-century London. She has never been outside her mother's miserable flat, never seen grass, leaves on trees, or common animals. Her vocabulary is somehow pretty good (or has become so during the putative years that have passed till she tells the story from an adult perspective). But her initial ignorance of everyday life approaches Kaspar-Hauser dimensions. When she and her untamed little brother Jamie seize the chance to run away to the country at the start of the Second World War, stowing away among a group of evacuees, their lives finally begin.

Unfortunate children taken in by a benefactor are a staple of children's literature from folktales, through Dickens, to a host of contemporary award-winners. The War That Saved My Life follows the formulas of the rescued-child story, and its faithfulness to the archetypal appeal of the genre (because we are all, in some sense, that child in need of rescue) keeps the reader attentive.

Many readers have noted the extremely close similarity between The War That Saved My Life and Michelle Magorian's Good Night, Mr. Tom (1981). In the earlier book, an abused child from London is evacuated and taken in by a semi-reclusive widower in a country village, who ends up adopting the child and freeing him from the cycle of abuse. Bradley makes the child female, gives the child a younger brother, makes the child physically disabled as well as emotionally traumatized, and makes the benefactor a lesbian widow. The correspondence between the two novels is as close as that between Max e os felinos and Life of Pi, but in the case of The War That Saved My Life, imitation has been generally read as flattery.

Bradley is American (Magorian is English), and the language spoken by the characters in The War That Saved My Life is for the most part neutral 21st-century American, with a word or two ("loo" for toilet, e.g.) thrown in here and there to signal that we're in southeast England in 1940. This bothered me at first, till I realized how long ago 1940 is now, and how any attempt to represent its dialect accurately would be an approximation at best. We accept that historical novels are going to give us dialogue we can understand, dialogue that is effectively a "translation" of what the historical characters would have said in their own time, place, and social class.

Bradley, as I noted, adds disability, post-traumatic stress, and queerness to the formulas she inherits. Ada lives resourcefully with her clubfoot. Once in the country and under the care of a well-off guardian, she learns to walk with crutches, and ride a pony better than she can walk, repurposing a sidesaddle as a kind of prosthetic. The War That Saved My Life is a horse book as well as a war story and a orphan-succored tale. Ada establishes a symbiosis with her pony Butter, and identifies with Butter as mildly ill-treated – Susan, her guardian, has let Butter's hooves grow out. Horses can have clubfoot too, Ada learns, and can be made whole. As the story develops, Ada's mother's greatest sin comes to be her refusal to make Ada whole in her infancy. Her second-greatest is to destroy Ada's ability to cope by locking her in a cupboard (another element modeled on Magorian's Mr. Tom). It takes Ada a long time to adjust to Susan's nurturing, since all she expects from caretakers is abuse.

As for the queerness, it's not overtly mentioned. I think that by 2025 it will be mentioned in books like these; but it's a step forward not to suppress lesbianism altogether. Susan lived happily with Becky till Becky died, even though the partners were seen as odd within their community, Susan has been disowned by her clergyman father, and Susan's widowhood is seen as failure and barrenness. Susan doesn't like children at the start but comes to love Ada and her brother Jamie deeply, and this fulfills her. It could have happened this way, but as I always say, since it didn't, it's always interesting to note how a fiction writer's choices frame the world. Women, gay or straight, need children to care for. Those who don't – like the kids' horrible mother, or the prim Lady Thorton, are coded as unnatural.

Social class is another aspect of The War That Saved My Life that gets handled in 21st-century American ways. Ada meets Lady Thorton's daughter Maggie when both are out riding and Maggie falls. They strike up an intimate friendship, punctuated by Maggie's departures for boarding school (the insistence of her unnatural mother!) Now, again, this might have happened. Wartime and childhood make for unusual friendships. But the ease with which an illiterate, uneducated city girl befriends an aristocrat's daughter is a kind of wishful thinking – a little slice of Downton Abbey laid over the other fairy-tale elements of the book.

Ada starts the novel illiterate but doesn't stay that way for long. She doesn't care about books at all, never having known any, and for a long time lags behind her little brother in her appreciation of The Swiss Family Robinson: "tired of those idiots living on an island," she says at one point (121). But before long Ada is consuming Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows, and we know she's safely on her way to becoming a Newbery heroine.

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. The War That Saved My Life. New York: Dial [Penguin Random House], 2015. PZ 7 .B7247War. Kindle Edition.