by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Ada and her little brother Jamie live above a pub in a gritty part of London in 1939. Ada has never been outside because her mother is ashamed of her clubfoot. When they hear that children are being evacuated, they plot to run away from their abusive mother, only to find when they reach their destination that no one wants them. Finally, an older single woman named Susan is convinced to take them in. Living with Susan, they discover trees, the freedom of horseback riding, school, friendship, and – surprisingly – love. Ada also becomes friends with a girl about her own age whose family is very well off, which adds another dimension to her relationship with Susan. Another boy from her neighborhood in London also stays once all the other evacuees return home, and I could see a sequel following these characters and developing their relationships more.
Wow. This book, as they say, has all the feelz. Flipping back through, I was surprised how few pages chronicle Ada and Jamie’s life before they run away, because the picture of their life with Mam is crystal clear. There is no doubt that Mam is physically and emotionally abusive, particularly to Ada – she is locked in a cupboard with roaches all night as punishment, beaten, never allowed to walk or leave the apartment, expected to care for her brother and cook all the meals, and told over and over again that she is worthless. Not only that, but Ada later learns that her mother has told the whole neighborhood that she is simple-minded. When Ada and Jamie return to London, their life is just as awful as they remembered it. Their mother’s heart has not grown fonder in their absence. She actively brings them down from their fancy country ways with her words and by taking away Ada’s crutches and forbidding her to leave the apartment again.
The ending reunites Ada and Jamie with Susan in a way that felt unrealistic. I wished that they hadn’t had to return to London, or had found their way back to Susan on their own, without all the sappy life-saving stuff on both sides. I think the subtlety of the war saving Ada’s life just by getting her out of London and away from her abusive home life was strong enough without being hit over the head with it at the end. But overall a lovely story and a new twist on the person-with-a-disability theme that has been a recent trend. One other note is that there are strong hints, though never outright declared, that Susan is a lesbian and had been in a long-term relationship with a woman who had passed away not long before Ada and Jamie come to live with her. This was widely known in her town and she was not treated poorly for it or declared unsuitable for caring for children (though she does say she never wanted children). She also struggles from some depression regarding her grief over Becky.