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war-that-saved-my-life.jpgDuring of a conversation with a children’s librarian I asked about her favorite books. Her top choice was, The War That Saved My Life, which turned out to be (with or without its sequel), not only a beautifully told story, but a work that could be a supplemental text for a course on psychological trauma.
It centers on ten-year-old Ada, her four years younger brother Jamie, and their caretaker Susan, who foster parents them at the start of World War II after they are evacuated to the countryside along with many other London children. Ada had been horribly abused and Jamie neglected by their widowed mother. Ostensibly their mother singled Ada out for this treatment because she was born with a club foot, which the mother refused to have repaired. She then hid Ada away and punished her because of the shame the mother claimed she would experience if neighbors saw Ada. Ada takes advantage of her mother’s absence to join Jamie when he reports to school for the evacuation. Leaning on her brother, she painfully manages to walk with him, in this first time she has ever left their small apartment. The children are then paired with Susan, who hasherself been struggling with the loss of her life partner to illness. That theirs was a lesbian relationship is never made explicit, however the way that relationship influenced how Susan had been treated by others is instructively made apparent in subtext.

While the arc of the story shows healing from the abuse, it does not miss that this path is not smooth, nor does it miss the many tribulations of war, including deaths and destruction that was suffered by civilians in the “Battle of Britain.” The sequel, The War that I Finally Won, continues the story of Susan and the children, and illustrates the longer term effects of the war on others, including combat pilots and Jewish immigrants from Germany.
One passage will be highlighted here, but in chapter after chapter there is representation of almost every aspect of traumatic experience. These are insightfully and artistically presented in the context of a compelling narrative. These representations include, among others: 

  • The survivor’s pervasive dread, fear, and mistrust
  • The differential treatment of abused siblings
  • How the survivor may take a protective role and show extraordinary courage
  • The self-blame and sense of unworthiness inculcated in the survivor
  • Different manifestation of dissociation 
  • The convoluted path toward healing
  • The potential for therapeutic value of animals
  • Models of effective limit setting in the context of consistently patient and loving caretaking

Of the many instructive and absorbing passages that could be offered is one in which Ada reacts violently after receiving a generous Christmas gift, demonstrating the perverse logic of traumatization in which what would on the surface seem to be a positive event can be transformed into its opposite. It should be noted that in the description of her reaction to the gift, Ada references Susan’s statement (made near the very beginning of the relationship) that she never wanted children. This was taken out of context by Ada and illustrates the difficulty in attending to the potential effect of even unintentional slights.
An excerpt from pp. 213 – 215 is included here:
Because it was Christmas Eve we had bacon at breakfast. During the day I helped make biscuits. Jamie roasted chestnuts for the gooses’ dressing. Susan put the radio on and sang along to the Christmas music. (The children’s deprivation included the absence of almost any normal cultural knowledge ranging from Christmas carols to even the names of animals.)

Midafternoon she made us bathe. She brushed my hair downstairs by the fire until it was dry and braided it in two plaits instead of one. We ate supper, and then she told Jamie to go upstairs and put on his church clothes. She told me to sit still. “I have a surprise.”

She put a big box wrapped in paper on my lap. Inside was a dress made of soft dark green fabric. It had puffed sleeves and a round collar, it gathered at the waist before billowing out into a long, full skirt.
It was so beautiful I couldn’t touch it. I just stared.

“Come,” Susan said. “Let’s see if it fits.”

I held perfectly still while she took off my sweater and blouse, and settled the green dress over my head. “Step out of your skirt,” Susan said, and I did. She buttoned the dress and stepped back. “There,” she said, smiling, her eyes soft and warm. “It’s perfect, Ada. You’re beautiful.”

She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. “You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!” My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s  discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn’t bear to hear her call me beautiful.

“What’s the matter?” Susan asked, perplexed. “It’s a Christmas present. I made if for you. Bottle green velvet, just like you said.”

Bottle green velvet. “I can’t wear this,” I said. I pulled at the bodice, fumbling for the buttons. “I can’t wear it. I can’t.”

“Ada.” Susan grabbed my hands. She pulled me to the sofa and set me down hard beside her, still restraining me. “Ada. What. would you say to Jamie, if I gave him something nice and he said he couldn’t have it? Think what you would say?”

Tears were running down my face now. I started to panic. I fought Susan’s grasp. “I’m not Jamie!” I said. “I’m different, I’ve got the ugly foot, I’m---” My throat closed over the word rubbish.

“Ada. Ada.” I felt I could hardly hear Susan’s voice. A scream built up from somewhere inside me, came roaring out in an ocean of sound. Scream after scream – Jamie running half-dressed down the stairs, Susan pinned down my arms, holding me against her, holding me tight. Waves of panic hit me, over and over, turning me and tossing me until I thought I’d drown.
We didn’t go to church. We ended upon on the floor in front of the fire, wrapped in blankets Jamie dragged down the stairs. All of us. I don’t know how long I screamed and flailed. I don’t know how long Susan restrained me. I kicked and scratched her and probably would have bitten her, but she held on. I don’t know what Jamie did, other than bring down the blankets. Susan wrapped me in one, rolled me up tight, and the panic started to ease. “That’s it,” Susan croaked. “Shh. Shh. you’re okay.”

I was not okay. I would never be okay. But I was too exhausted to scream anymore.
Bradley, K. B. (2015) The War that Saved My Life. New York: Dial Books.
Bradley, K. B. (2017) The War that I Finally Won. New York: Dial Books