THE WAR I FINALLY WON
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
385 pp. Dial. 16.99.
Readers of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s last novel, “The War That Saved My Life,” will already be familiar with the terrible particulars of Ada Smith’s childhood: her abusive mother, her captivity in a single shabby room in London during World War II, her painful clubfoot and its associated shame. They will have watched her journey out of that dark place, into one of relative safety. Leaving us to wonder: Now what? Now comes Ada’s aftermath, as she struggles not to let her trauma define her life.
In some ways, the structure of “The War I Finally Won” could not be simpler. “You can know things all you like,” Ada says in the very beginning of the book, “but that doesn’t mean you believe them.” This is the book’s anchor. Ada’s journey, we understand, will be about learning to believe.
Ada’s physical and external problems will be solved rather quickly. In the book’s first chapters, her clubfoot is repaired and she finds herself mending in a hospital. She discovers that her horrible mother is conveniently dead, so Ada and her brother, Jamie, can live happily with their kind guardian, Susan, in a comfortable country cottage. But those physical solutions only take her so far, because of course Ada’s journey isn’t really a physical one at all. Her journey is about constructing belief, and that path is less clear.
Ada can’t simply shake off the pain of the past, because she suffers from a kind of PTSD. Fearful and nervous, she hoards, mistrusts physical affection, is ashamed to talk about her foot and struggles to express love until the very end of the book. External events occur — Susan gets sick , a Jewish refugee named Ruth joins them and Ada’s sponsor, Lady Thorton, suffers a great loss when her son dies — but these events matter primarily because they give Ada the opportunity to learn, to experience empathy and, ultimately, to love.
Ada also grows through direct lessons from others, who increasingly inspire trust. Halfway through the book, Susan offers a variation on the theme. “You don’t have to feel safe to actually be safe,” Susan reassures Ada after a moment of panic on a rooftop. Safety is not something Ada can feel yet, but she is able, after so much work, to accept that maybe the safety is there before she can feel it. And that Susan can help her believe in it. This is key, because Ada’s healing feels most complete when she becomes whole enough to see past her own pain, and able to believe or feel for others. As Ada comes to see that her life is better than it has ever been, she recognizes that some of her loved ones are struggling. In the end, she gets her turn to help, and so becomes stronger, more whole.
By the story’s final page, that initial anchor sentence has shifted. “You can know things all you like,” Ada tells us. “And someday you might believe them.” That “might” is my favorite word in the book. It makes me believe in Ada, in her journey. The beauty of this book is in the slightness of this shift, in the fact that Ada is still not quite certain but has hope.
Rarely is a children’s book so honest in its approach to suffering, and the possibility that recovery will never be complete. Ada will always limp, and she may always feel survivor’s guilt or struggle to trust those who love her. In this way, “The War I Finally Won” is daring. But there is comfort too, in Ada’s desire to love and grow.
This willingness to allow for true contrast is the book’s greatest strength. Despair and hope, coldness and warmth, fear and trust, ugliness and beauty. Bones break and knit back together. A terrifying climb to a rooftop reveals a breathtaking sky full of stars. Children are broken and then made whole. And yet they will always have been broken.“The War I Finally Won” explores how pain can lead to strength, or fear to joy. In the end, we accept that Ada will carry her burden. But we also know that she will work to be okay. The power of this book is that it describes, slowly and sometimes painfully, that it is possible not just to live through pain, but to live with it.