Conditional Recommendation: From a cruel mother to a good home, this is a young girl’s journey to freedom, healing, and identity through the help and care of her guardian during WWII.
Awards: Newbery Medal Nominee (2016), Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School (2016), Odyssey Award (2016), Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2017), Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children’s Literature (2016), Bluestem Book Award Nominee (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Middle Grade & Children’s (2015), Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award Nominee (2017)
I have swayed my husband over to the dark side when it comes to audiobooks. Now, whenever we have a trip or are in the car together for longer than a half hour we have an audiobook playing. One of my favorite parts about this book is that my husband found it. He picked up several audiobooks for me to choose from for a car trip and when we started listening to it, we were skeptical and actually a little nervous because it starts out so bleak but I’m glad we stuck with it because it turns into an absolute, undeniable gem.
Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him. So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
There’s so much in this story to unpack so let’s get right into it. I was immediately captured by the dreary world of ten-year-old Ada. It was so depressing and the cruelty that she experiences at the hands of her own mother so disgusting and twisted that I almost bailed because I was nervous about what would happen next. After finishing the book I must say that you need to experience the bleak beginning because it is essential for the rest of the story and the development of Ada. It gives meaning to the whole book.
Ada’s transformation throughout the book is achingly beautiful. She starts out only knowing the world through the eyes of her mother and younger brother Jamie. Prisoner in her own home, she is also prisoner to their perspectives. Jamie’s is kind and innocent but the mother’s is twisted, degrading and overshadowed by bitterness and hatred. Ada sees herself through her mother’s eyes: that because of her foot she is repulsive, should be ashamed, and is worthless. And yet, Ada always hopes for the best from her mother even though it has become second nature to anticipate punishment and physical abuse. Her mother tells her that standing up is “getting above yourself” and that Ada will never be allowed to leave the apartment.
When Ada and Jamie evacuate to the country, they meet Susan Smith a recluse who is forced to take them in. All Ada knows of her is that she is rich (Susan doesn’t work so she must be rich according to Ada), she is sad, and she doesn’t want children or know how to take care of them.
When Ada escapes with Jamie with the other London children being evacuated to the country she sees grass for the first time. Her escape signifies the start of Ada’s fight for freedom, identity, and self worth. She sees a pony being ridden and begins to dream. She sees the outside world and begins to see all that she was missing. She meets Stephen and gets the smallest inkling that something is wrong with the things her mother has said and done. She experiences an act of friendship when Stephen carries her on his back to the train station. In a bathroom, she sees herself in a mirror and realizes how dirty and bad she looks. The seeds of understanding and truth are planted. Susan’s home and care are good ground for those seeds to grow, a place they can receive nourishment to grow.
I love the difference the reader can see between Susan Smith’s household and their mother’s household. Under Susan’s care, Ada gets stronger and healthy, her skin conditions heal, her foot is bandaged and she is given crutches, she is cleaned and fed regularly, she is never hit, never abused, and given so much kindness that Ada doesn’t know what to do with it. This book is a great example of grace and how we naturally can respond to grace. At first, Ada doesn’t believe it and only accepts care with skepticism. She doesn’t believe that life can really be this good and last so she clings to the knowledge that Susan and all the good things she has are temporary. Ada responds to grace with anger—at the horribleness of her mother and her old life which is looking more awful the more good she experiences; at her own lack of knowledge and understanding that everyone else thinks is normal to know; at how unworthy she is to receive all these good things. Above all, she is deeply afraid to trust what Susan says to be true because it would mean that the truths she thought she knew are really lies. The words of her mother ring loudly in Ada’s head and only after a long time and the faithfulness of Susan do the lies begin to fade.
I find the themes in this book very easy to compare to the Christian’s life. Born in Adam we have a birth defect and a horrible existence because of sin and its consequences. But when we are saved we are placed into Christ’s family where we receive care, security, and more grace than we know what to do with and, like Ada, have a hard time accepting because of our pride and the lies we’ve believed to be true. As Ada sees the difference between her mother and Susan, so does a Christian over time learn that living under God in grace is exceedingly different than living under the power of Adam’s curse of sin. One of the ways that God helps us to learn about grace is by allowing circumstances to unearth the lies that are buried deep in our souls. These are the things this book brings to mind! Isn’t it inspiring? In the book there is this powerful scene where Ada thinks she’s broken Susan’s beloved sewing machine and hides herself upstairs under the bed in fear until Susan comes home and finds her. Ada is afraid of what Susan will do and is terrified that she will be sent away. A Christian must come to understand that God does not treat us by what we do or don’t do, by how we sin or don’t sin but rather in grace. When God looks at us He sees Jesus Christ, not our sin. When Susan sees Ada she sees a girl terrified and seeks to assure her that she will not be harmed or sent away.
She pulled me close to her, in a sort of one-armed embrace. “Why did you hide? Why were you under the bed?”Jamie had been hovering the entire time. “Mam puts her in the cabinet,” he said, “whenever she’s really bad.”“But why put yourself there, Ada? You didn’t have to.”So I can stay. SoIcanstaysoIcanstaysoIcanstay.“I’m not going to shut you up anywhere, no matter what, okay?”“Okay.” My stomach felt awful. My voice sounded very small. I could barely make my mind stay in the room with Susan and Jamie. I said, “I know I have to leave. Please, can Jamie come too?”“Ada!”Oh no. Ohnoohnoohnoohno. Without Jamie I would die.“I’m not going to send you away. Why would I send you away? You made a mistake. A little, small mistake.” Now both Susan’s arms were around me. I tried to squirm free. She held me tighter.
Ada has a hard time learning that the rules she knew before do not apply here. At one point Ada thinks, “I wanted Mam to be like Susan. I didn’t really trust Susan not to be like Mam.” Oh the parallels to the Christian’s relationship with God! In the beginning, Ada’s sees herself and the world through her mother’s eyes and hears her voice in her head, but as the story goes along a shift occurs and Ada starts to see herself and the world the way Susan sees it and eventually it is Susan’s good voice in her head, not her mother’s. I LOVE that!
Part of Ada’s healing process is experiencing and facing her anxieties and fears. From the scene quoted above you can see that Ada has developed a PTSD type of anxiety because of her old life with her mother and she struggles with terror-filled episodes when she comes to live with Susan and something reminds her of home or her mother. While reading I repeated thought that Susan is perceptive and really understands Ada and what she needs. Susan is an excellent caretaker and faithfully helps Ada through her anxiety and anxiety attacks as they come. Ada has developed this coping mechanism in which she “goes away in her head” whenever she is afraid or really uncomfortable. Susan quickly picks up on this and time and again when Ada starts to go away in her head she says gently, “Ada, come back.” Susan’s tender care is just what Ada needs to truly heal and it is heartwarming to experience.
My goodness, there are so many good things to talk about in this book! I really could go on and on. I haven’t even mentioned the good friendships she develops with Maggie Thorton, Stephen White and the stable master Fred Grimes; how she learns to read and write and ride Butter, how she becomes helpful and capable; how she learns to walk with her crutches and learns that there is a procedure that could fix her foot. I haven’t talked about Jamie’s or Susan’s characters, the ongoing war metaphor, or the many more Christian life parallels to be found in this book. I thought the ending brought the metaphor of war and being saved full circle though maybe it was a bit abrupt. It was good way to end, all the same.
I made this a conditional recommendation for middle grade readers simply because of the cruelty of Ada and Jamie’s mother. There is verbal and physical abuse so it may not be suited for all readers.
I highly recommend this book to read aloud or as a book club book because it is just loaded with topics to discuss. It is simple enough for young readers and yet so deeply packed with truth and reality that I think an adult would enjoy it even more than a kid. This book is worth spending the time to unpack all it has to offer. Enjoy the read.
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