Friday, March 20, 2015

Going Home: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The train was miserable, of course.

The world moved outside the train windows, faster and faster. The buildings ended and suddenly there was green. "What's that?" I asked. "Grass," Jamie said. There was nothing like it that I'd ever seen. I knew green from clothing and cabbages, not fields.

"Ada! Ada! Look!" Jamie whispered.

A girl on a pony was racing the train. She was actually on top of the pony, sitting on its back. The girl was laughing, her face wide open with joy, and it was clear even to me that she meant to be on the pony. I knew ponies from the lane, but only to pull carts. I didn't know you could ride them. The girl leaned forward against the pony's flying mane. Her legs thumped the pony's sides and the pony surged forward, faster, brown legs flying. I saw a stone wall ahead. I gasped. They were going to hit it. Why didn't she stop the pony?

They jumped it.

Suddenly, I could feel it with my whole body--the running, the jump, the flying. "I'm going to do that," I said.

Nothing could have seemed less possible for Ada, born with a clubfoot and confined her entire life to the one room in which she, her six-year-old brother Jamie, and her cruel mother live. While Jamie plays freely in the streets outside, all Ada knows of the world is the view from behind the curtain of their one window. Her mam considers her deformity a shameful mark of the Devil and refuses to let her leave the room.

Then the coming of World War II threatens London, and children are hastily evacuated to the countryside before the bombing begins. Mam agrees to send Jamie with the others, and despite her fear of her mother's beatings and the cockroach infested cabinet in which she is locked for disobedience, Ada resolves that she and Jamie will not be separated. Ada and Jamie slip out while Mam sleeps, Ada managing to walk to the station and talk herself and Jamie onto the train among the others. At last they reach a station in Kent, and Ada sees her first toilet and sink. As she washes her hands and face, she sees herself for the first time in a mirror--the shabbiest, nastiest looking girl ever, she thinks.

At their destination, Ada sees her self description in the eyes of the villagers who have come to take in the evacuees. But the stern woman in charge says she has the perfect place for them.

"It's a single lady," the woman replied. "She's very nice."

Jamie shook his head. "Mam says nice people won't have us."

The corner of the woman's mouth twitched. "She isn't
that nice. Plus, it's not for her to decide."

Susan is not that nice. She is gruff and obviously not pleased with the dirty, malnourished pair assigned to her, but she gives them hot baths, and a couple of her own clean shirts to wear while she washes their one set of ragged clothes. And she feeds them--more and better food than they've ever seen. And then Ada sees something that changes everything for her.

To the right of the house a bright yellow pony puts its head through the bushes and and stared at me.

In Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's latest, The War that Saved My Life (Dial Books, 2015), the author portrays the long struggle toward trust and independence that Ada finds with Susan, and although Mam reappears and takes them back to London, Ada and Jamie realize where their real home is just as the Blitz begins in London.

Bradley's first-person narration has that magical quality of classic children's novels to put the reader right into the protagonist's mind and body, no easy task in the case of a character in 1940 who has almost no knowledge of the outside world. But somehow readers come to see the world through Ada's eyes as she, and Susan as well, find their way to a wider world and greater possibilities for themselves. With plenty of wartime action and a bit of Nazi spy-catching, there is much for middle readers to love in Bradley's exceptional storytelling. Few writers have the ability to take their characters so far, so believably, movingly, unsentimentally, and with no sacrifice of hard-headed reality, into a new life, right down to its pitch-perfect conclusion. Appropriately, this novel has been met with deservedly glowing approval by critics and merits high honors at award time, one not to be missed. "Achingly lovely . . . Nuanced and emotionally acute, this vivid tale from the wartime home front will have readers ages 10-14 wincing at Ada's stumbles and rejoicing to the point of tears in her victories," raves the staid The Wall Street Journal.

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