My rating: 5 of 5 stars
middle grade, historical fiction
Brother Jamie and sister Ada are brought up in poverty by their abusive mother in London. Ada was born with a club foot and their mother keeps her hidden away in their small flat, sometimes locking her cruelly in a small cupboard. When World War II begins, the children in her neighborhood are evacuated due to bomb scares. Ada, who wasn’t going to be allowed to go, sneaks off with her brother and they are the last children to be selected to live with a reluctant woman named Susan. She is wrestling with her own demons, but she quickly grows to be fond of and even love the children. They blossom under her care with lots of freedom, hygiene, good food, and love, none of which they have ever really had before. They end up saving each other as they deal with their own crippling pasts.
This is a great coming-of-age story as Ada goes from whimpering dependent to a strong, brave leading character. She endures quite a bit in a small amount of time and she comes through it shining. At first I thought the plot was coming along a little slowly and then I realized that Ada’s reaction to the big changes she has faced was delayed. The more she thought about her time with Susan coming to an end, the harder it became for her to cope with her past. She would revert back to her former self having panic attacks, but Susan was calm, patient, and understanding as she helped her make it through them. Similarly, Susan would turn inward when she missed her friend (partner?) Becky who passed away prior to the events of the story. Eventually, Ada helps coax her out of her funk in the same way.
I listened to the audiobook and it is clear why it won ALA’s Odyssey Award for excellence in audiobook production for children/young adults. Narrator Jayne Entwistle does a wonderful job giving voice to all of these characters. I could see the story playing in my head as I listened. If this is adapted to film, I fully expect to see Judi Dench as Susan. A close second would be Imelda Staunton.
The Secret Garden is mentioned as a book that Susan reads to the children and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Ada and Mary. Sickly and suddenly without parents, they are sent to live in foreign environments that end up saving them. And immediately after listening to The War that Saved My Life, I watched Tangled with my daughter. I was struck to the number of parallels to the story of Rapunzel.