This is one that won a Newbery honor, the Odyssey award for best audiobook for children. And even more importantly for me, Maureen at By Singing Light really, really, really liked it.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Read by Jayne Entwhistle. Random House/ Listening Library, 2015.
Ada has lived her whole life in a tiny London flat with her little brother Jamie and Mam. Mam has always told her that her clubfoot makes her too hideous for anyone to see, so Ada has never left the room or learned to walk. When Jamie tells Ada that children are being sent away from London because of risk of German bombs, Mam is clear that she intends to send only Jamie away. Ada secretly teaches herself to walk so that she can go with Jamie, the only person she loves.
In the country, no one wants a pair of ragged, dirty children, one of whom is a cripple. They’re pushed onto Susan Smith, a single woman so locked in grief over the loss of her best friend some years earlier that she wants nothing to do with them. Slowly, the children draw Susan out of her shell. (Standard children’s literature theme: children are good for adults, whether or not they think they want them.) Susan has a pony, Butter, whom Ada learns to ride. Slowly, slowly, Ada deals with the weight of her ignorance about the world and the depth of her self-hatred. She is often angry and out-of-control in a way that felt very realistic for an abuse survivor, as she struggles to learn to read and write, to accept gifts, to make friends. Always, there is the fear that Mam will take them back. Towards the end of the book, there are bombs and a German spy – the last of which I agree with Maureen did not feel necessary to the story.
It’s read by Jayne Entwhistle, who also narrated The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. She says in a conversation with her at the end of the book that she toned down her accents for American audiences, but the different in lower-class London and upper-middle-class Kent is still clear. I wasn’t sure after the multiple narrators and integrated music of Echo how this one might be better – but this is just amazing.
This is character-driven historical fiction done to perfection. I found myself worrying for Ada and Jamie frequently as I was listening to the book. The bombs and spies were such an abrupt addition towards the end that I’m not sure how kids would react to it – it felt like possibly too much for the sensitive reader (though the child abuse with Mam is pretty severe, too), while I could see a plot-first reader like my son waiting impatiently for actual war stuff to start happening. Still, it was just about a perfect book for me, and a great choice for a family audiobook listening with kids of middle grade age and up.