Last year, I reviewed The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, which was released in 2015 and won a Newbery Honor in 2016, calling it one of the best works of historical fiction I have read. While I love the character of Ada and was thrilled to think her story would continue, I was a bit skeptical that Bradley could sustain, if not continue her story with the same power and intensity. In The War I Finally Won, Bradley continues with the same power while expanding and deepening the characters and their experiences in a way I could not have imagined. I read The War I Finally Won in two sittings, stopping to weep and blow my nose every thirty pages or so, constantly amazed by Bradley's gift for creating compelling, genuine characters. If The War That Saved My Life was about the start of Ada's journey to physical healing, then The War I Finally Won is about the start of her journey to emotional healing.
The War I Finally Won begins in September of 1940, with Ada narrating, telling a story that is now three years in the past. Surgery to correct her clubfoot is successful and Susan has become the legal guardian to Ada and her brother Jamie. The three are living in a cottage on the grounds of the Thornton estate, Susan's house having been destroyed in a bombing. Ada struggles to feel safe, at the same time struggling to trust the presence of a loving, capable guardian in her life. Ada bristles every time Jamie calls Susan "Mum," and repeatedly corrects others who refer to Susan as her mother. Ada also cannot let go of the drive to do her duty and earn her keep, as she felt she had to do when living with Mam.
Bradley brilliantly adds to Ada's world by having Lady Thornton move from the manor house into the cottage with Susan and the children along with Ruth, a teenaged Jewish refugee who Lord Thornton wants Susan, who we learn was a brilliant math student at university, to tutor. Over the course of The War I Finally Won, I marveled at the ways that Ada's unique and drastic experience was mirrored in other characters. After Susan makes it clear to Lady Thornton that she needs to pull her own weight in the cottage, she learns how to shop and cook with Ada often teaching her. After a meal of beef shin stew, Lady Thornton says, "I am beginning to learn how much I never realized I didn't know." Seeing similarities in her own upbringing and Ada's, Lady Thornton takes an interest in Ada's past that makes for some quietly powerful scenes. And, much like Ada's mother hated her for something she had no control over, Lady Thornton is deeply prejudiced against Ruth for being German, like the enemy, and barely civil to her, adding to the friction in the cottage.
There is tragedy and loss in The War I Finally Won, and how Ada copes with the stresses of war and learns to move forward from the trauma of her past are so well written, so simply powerful, that the moments of healing and happiness that come for Ada are especially profound. Out of necessity, Ada is a caretaker and a protector. To watch her grow and lower her defenses, to allow others to care for her, others to protect her and for her to allow herself to recognize what it feels like to love another person and finally feel safe enough to express it are magnificent moments. Equally magnificent are the moments when Ada, thoughtful and brave, is able to help those around her who are suffering.
Like The War That Saved My Life, and possibly more so, The War I Finally Won, while set against the backdrops of war and unbelievable acts of cruelty, is filled with humanity, and unforgettable acts of compassion and empathy.
Source: Review Copy & Purchased Copy