The War That Saved My Life is Ava’s story. When we meet Ava she is nine years old, living with her mother and younger brother in a tenement in London during World War II. Ava was born with a club foot and her mother has led Ava to believe that the club foot is her fault, that it is disgusting and that she should be ashamed of it–and herself. She is not allowed to go outside the small apartment, nor is she provided with crutches or any other kind of walking aid. As the danger of bombing increases in London, Ava’s mother decides to have her younger son, Jamie, shipped to the countryside with other London children to protect them from the immediate bombing dangers. At a loss and heartsick to be left alone with her abusive mother and without the little brother she adores and has cared for since he was born Ava manages to escape the apartment and board the train with Jamie.
Once in the English countryside Ava and Jamie are placed with Susan Smith, a woman living with her own sorrows and none too thrilled about having children in her care. From Susan Ava learns that she is not responsible for (nor does she need to be ashamed of) her club foot–that, actually, she has much to be proud of in her accomplishments despite the obstacles she faces as a result of her disability.
For me, the beauty of The War That Saved My Life is the way in which both Susan and Ava teach each other to view herself differently. There is wonder in discovering things about and within yourself that you did not know or believe existed. It is this very thing that allows each of us to transcend the bits and pieces of life and become more than simply the sum of our parts. It’s exhilarating to experience and inspiring to witness in another. The War That Saved My Life provides all of these experiences through its deftly and deeply written characters–particularly Ava and Susan.
I was slightly disappointed in the ending which, although I won’t give it away here, I felt was contrived in a way nothing else about the story was. It makes a great example in a unit on historical fiction and the first three-quarters of the book offer multiple opportunities to discuss disabilities vs capabilities and the role words of others (and ourselves) can shape our self-image and what we believe about our own capabilities.
Despite my reservations about the ending I recommend The War That Saved My Life as an independent or read-aloud for upper elementary or middle school classrooms.