The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a historical fiction novel set in England at the outbreak of World War II. However, there is another "war" that the protagonist, 10-year-old Ada Smith, faces: the battle to escape her abusive mother. Ada and her brother Jamie are given the opportunity to leave London and their cruel "Mam" when the government begins evacuating children due to the threat of Nazi bombing attacks on major cities. Ada and Jamie are fostered by a woman named Susan Smith who says she is not equipped to raise children. The author includes actual events and places to create a realistic picture of England during World War II as well as the personal struggles Ada faces to overcome a lifetime of trauma and abuse.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a bestselling, Newbery Honor winning book that was written in 2015. The story is set in England at the beginning of World War II in 1939-1940. 10-year-old Ada Smith was born with a club foot. Her verbally and physically abusive mother has never allowed doctors to treat it or helped her to learn to walk. "Mam" forces Ada to clean and care for her little brother, 6 year old Jamie, all while crawling. Jamie will soon be attending school, but "Mam" says that Ada will never leave their dilapidated London flat. Mam tells Ada that her "ugly foot" is shameful. Because of her love for Jamie and her desire to someday leave the flat, Ada decides to secretly teach herself to walk despite the pain.
In September 1939, Nazi Germany invades Poland and Great Britain begins preparing for war. The British government expects Nazi Germany to bomb major cities like London. In order to keep children safe, they are evacuated by train to the countryside and placed with foster families. Ada sneaks Jamie out of the house and they go to the train station with the other children. Ada and Jamie are placed with Susan Smith, a depressed single woman who protests that she cannot possibly care for the children. However, she relents and despite her insisting that "she is not a kind person", Susan is actually very caring and attentive. For the first time, the children have medical care, regular meals, and a comfortable home with amenities they never dreamed of. Ada is especially fond of Susan's pony, Butter. Being with Butter is therapeutic and she is determined to learn to ride.
Ada and Jamie spend about a year with Susan, who comes to care deeply for them. She helps Ada overcome the years of trauma and neglect that have left deep scars. Ada learns to ride Butter and helps Fred Grimes, a farrier, care for horses on the Thornton estate. She befriends young Margaret Thornton and begins learning to read and write. Ada even helps the evacuated soldiers from the Battle of Dunkirk and becomes a local hero helping to capture a Nazi spy!
Everything changes when their worst nightmares come true and Mam comes to take them away. Susan feels compelled to return Ada and Jamie to their biological mother. However, Mam's only motivation for returning is so that she doesn't have to pay Susan for caring for them. In London, Mam locks up Ada and Jamie again in the tiny apartment despite the threat of a bombing. She has no love for her children and Ada and Jamie quickly realize that their torment will only continue as long as they stay with Mam. When Mam leaves for work the city is suddenly bombed! Ada and Jamie barely make it out of their apartment alive. They are stunned to see Susan Smith through the smoke rushing to find them! She regretted giving the children up the moment Mam took them.
Susan, Ada, and Jamie return to their coastal village happy to be reunited. To their shock, they find Susan's home was bombed while they were gone. The townspeople are desperately digging to try and find them in the rubble. They are overjoyed when they see the family returning alive. If Susan hadn't gone to London to rescue Ada and Jamie, she could have died. She thanks Jamie and Ada for saving her life. Ada says that "they are even" because, in truth, it was Susan who saved Ada's life.