One of the key contributors to my early and ongoing love of history was good historical fiction. I started out on the American Girl stories and the Little House on the Prairie series. I read my way through Caddie Woodlawn and Mandie and Anne of Green Gables. I graduated long ago into meatier stuff, but really—is there any better door into the past for children than literature?
Literature accomplishes so much that textbooks cannot: literature focuses the historical lens onto the individual and the ripple of consequences that flowed out into real life from political, social, and religious movements. Literature makes history a real place, albeit a foreign one, where thinking and feeling people made life-changing choices. Literature teaches us about real people doing hard things.
Every once in a while I find myself interested in reading children’s fiction again. Now that I’ve got my own kids, I feel like I need to know what’s out there so that, when the time comes, I’ll have a good stack of books ready for them. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley was a 2015 Newbery Honor book and piqued my interest.
The War That Saved My Life is the story of ten-year-old Ada who is evacuated from London with her brother Jamie during World War II. While the story of the evacuated children is a somewhat familiar one, Ada’s is not. Ada, who was born with a club foot, grew up knowing nothing but abuse from her neglectful mother. She was never let her out of their flat and was often locked in a cabinet. When her younger brother is set to leave London with the evacuees, Ada determines to make her escape with him, although she cannot walk and has never been on the street. She makes it to the train, from which she sees grass and trees for the first time. She does not even know what to call them.
Ada and Jamie are placed with Susan Smith, a single woman with frequent bouts of depression and no knowledge of how to care for children. Yet Susan quickly sizes up what the children’s home situation must have been and treats them with infinite compassion. Ada’s life opens up, quite literally, and she comes to know herself as she never did before—not as a “simple” or crippled girl, but as an intelligent one worthy of love and affection.
For me, the greatest strength of this novel lies in the way that it explains how a disabled and abused person thinks. I’ve always secretly felt that children placed in foster care and adoption behaved in ways that just seemed counter-intuitive and inexplicable. Ada displays many of these behaviors, yet the inner workings of her mind are written so simply and sensitively that they just make sense. Her story of fear and anger is heartbreaking, yet is filled with the hope of a life redeemed.
The War That Saved My Life is an arresting story that I finished in a day. The characters are complex and dynamic, and the historical element is well-utilized without becoming cliched. Its similarity to another “evacuee” story is uncanny, however. Good Night, Mr. Tom, written in 1986 by Michelle Magorian, covers similar territory. I can’t help but compare the two a bit here.
Good Night, Mr. Tom is the story of young William Beech, an evacuee from East London placed with gruff old Mr. Tom Oakley in the safety of the English countryside. William, like Ada, has grown up in an abusive environment and is malnourished, bruised and broken, and too afraid to speak more than a few timid words at a time. Tom is a reclusive widower of more than forty years. The next weeks and months are transformative for both William and Tom, while William learns what it is to receive abundance, both physically and relationally, and Tom remembers what it is to love another person.
Where The War That Saved My Life has a finely-honed feel, Good Night, Mr. Tom is more fleshed-out in both number of characters and “heart-warming” appeal. On the flip side, you could say that Mr. Tom has extra elements that aren’t always central to the plot. The novels are similar in more than just the basic set-up as well; both involve a return of the evil mother and an attempted rescue by the new guardian. Was The War That Saved My Life inspired by Mr. Tom? It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t.
Neither book is perfect, but either one would be a good choice for teaching young adults about the evacuee experience or learning about it yourself. Can you imagine how these thousands of children felt? Or what it cost their parents to send them away, not knowing who would care for them or how well they would do it–and not knowing if they would see each other again? It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most unique perspectives on World War II. If you enjoy the BBC’s period dramas Foyle’s War, Home Fires, or Call the Midwife, you will enjoy these books as well. (Note that in Mr. Tom, some scenes of abuse are enough to turn my adult stomach.)