An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds, set during World War II.
Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Miss Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take in the two children. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
This is the sort of novel you feel as if you've read before, but it's comforting in its familiarity. There are a lot of well-worn themes and character journeys here: Ada overcoming physical adversity; Ada and Jamie blossoming once away from their abusive mother; Susan, depressed and reluctant to care for the children, emerging from her grief and coming to love Ada and Jamie. It may lack originality in terms of plot, but it's such a well-executed, enjoyable read I didn't mind.
The beginning is engaging as Ada and Jamie flee their home and the city. Ada's voice is honest and authentic and true. While it's slow-paced through the middle, the ending is satisfying and uplifting and all the heartwarming you hope for. If you're tired of children-in-wartime novels, rest assured that the war is very much background to the story; this is a character-driven novel, which centres around Ada's journey, and is very much focused upon her acknowledging and moving beyond her mother's abuse and her physical limitations.
Ada and Jamie's mother is unrelentingly horrible, and the nature of her horribleness felt slightly far-fetched; it seemed more likely that an awful mother like her would have her daughter's foot operated on so that she could put her to work and profit from her child, rather than insist on shutting her away. By contrast, the woman into whose care Ada and Jamie are placed, Susan, is lovely. Her depressive state felt accurately evoked and her grief over the death of her best friend is dealt with tactfully. Her best friend is implied to have been her partner, prior to her death; I think it's great to see gay women represented in historical children's fiction, even in this limited way.
It's a novel which will engage older primary school students (to whom the themes and plot will seem fresh), but has enough depth and resonance to appeal to older readers, too. It's a lovely little novel to curl up with on a rainy day, that took me back to the novels I read and loved as a child.
The War that Saved My Life on the publisher's website.