The War That Saved My Life Summary| A brown haired girl feeds an apple to a butter colored horse in a paddock next to a white house. Her little brother and their foster mother watch on.

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.

Student Activities for The War That Saved My Life

Essential Questions for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

  1. Who are the main characters in The War That Saved My Life and what challenges do they face?
  2. What were some allusions (references to real people, places, events, religious practices, art, literature) present in the novel? What can you learn about the people and the time period from these allusions?
  3. What are some of the themes, symbols and motifs present in the novel? How does the symbolism help you better understand the characters and their motivations?
  4. What are the different settings of the novel and how does it affect and shape the characters?

The War That Saved My Life Summary

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.

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How To Facilitate a Discussion on Wars in Class


Discuss Historical Context

Begin the discussion by talking about the historical context of war and basic questions such as who started wars or how many wars have happened so far. Ask the students to give their own opinions about why wars happen and how can the conflict be neutralized.


Analyze Several Perspectives

Provide a range of perspectives and encourage the students to think from many perspectives. This fosters analytical thinking and a comprehension of how complicated wars are. Students can also read reviews and analyses of other people especially experienced writers and critics to see how other people think about wars.


Look at Significant Figures

Ask the students to discuss those important people who played a major role in the wars. Students can perform some background research about these people and analyze their role in the war. Encourage the students to determine how things could have gone differently if these people were not involved.


Examine Causes and Effects

Talk about the political, economic, social, and cultural forces that led to the conflict. Examine both the short- and long-term effects next. Encourage The students to put forth their own analysis about the cause and impacts of war and how long these impacts last. Students can pick one war and perform some research to present some facts and analysis on the causes and consequences of that war.


Make Connections

Relate current events or global concerns to the lessons learned from previous wars. Students benefit from being able to relate their learning to real-world situations. Tell the students that history always repeats itself and ask them to analyze the similarities and differences between previous wars and current situations around the world.

Frequently Asked Questions About The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

What use does Ada's clubfoot serve in the narrative?

Ada's clubfoot is a crucial aspect of her persona. It represents the psychological and physical imprisonment she experienced at the hands of her controlling mother. Symbolically, Ada’s fight for freedom starts when she teaches herself to walk despite the pain she has to go through because of her condition.

What is the significance of the war in the narrative?

The protagonists face both obstacles and possibilities as a result of World War 2. Ada and Jamie's lives are upended, but it also brings them to a more secure and caring setting. They are compelled by the battle to face their anxieties and develop as people. As the story comes to a resolution, the readers find out that the war which was meant to kill people saved a few lives.

Is there another part of this book?

Ada's tale is continued in the sequel "The War I Finally Won," which discusses the challenges she faces after World War 2.

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