First, from a non-disability lens, I thoroughly enjoyed The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. The story follows an engaging, complicated young girl, Ava, and her younger brother as they evacuate London during World War II. In evacuating, they confront issues of economic privilege, abandonment, and parental neglect, and learn to develop their own community and family in their new surroundings.
Looking at the story through the lens of disability, my opinion is more mixed. A crucial plot point of the book is that Ava was born with a clubfoot, and has received no treatment for it from her neglectful and abusive mother—who also does not allow Ava outside due to her condition. While this is a somewhat standard plot treatment of physical disability as something negative and the cause of suffering, the story mostly avoids sensationalizing her condition. This neglect is the starting point for the story, but the plot quickly moves beyond and complicates this standard treatment.
The fact that Ava has a clubfoot and a limp is a plot point used to move the story forward at times. This is done deftly by Bradley, as the disability is sometimes portrayed negatively, sometimes neutrally and sometimes even positively. For example, one of the ways her guardian Susan treats Ava with decency—unlike Ava’s mother—is by offering access to mobility aids, and before that, Ava’s mother raises the threat of institutionalization when Ava teaches herself to walk in order to leave her house for the first time and join the evacuation. Another example is Ava realizing that riding her pony sidesaddle is easier than riding in a saddle astride, and being helped by her new community in her efforts to succeed on horseback.
Somewhat more problematic from a disability perspective are the doctors’ visits as a major overarching plot mechanism. Susan takes Ava throughout the story, first to receive crutches, then again to discuss surgery, although Ava’s neglectful mother cannot be reached to authorize it. Going to the doctor regarding her disability is viewed as something positive, as indicative of a different life where Ava means more to those around her.
I could criticize the focus on “fixing” and on the correlation between unwantedness and disability, but the book is focused on unwantedness in a broader fashion, such as overarching social and emotional issues of poverty and abuse. The social issues surrounding disability at that time simply add to the situation. Disability itself is only a small part of the issues Ava’s mother has with her children. It turns out she never wanted children in the first place, and was traumatized by the unexpected death of Ava’s father. This means that Ava’s younger, non-disabled brother Jamie is ultimately just as unwanted as she is. The overarching themes of the book go beyond disability and fixing, instead centering on community and family and what it really means to love and be loved.
Ava is as challenged by her circumstances as she is by her clubfoot. As she becomes more confident and more able to accept the love from her new family, she also grows happier. Besides obviously gaining the mobility of first walking, then of her crutches, there are no dramatic changes relating to her disability—either of her disability itself or of how people treat her related to it. She never gets the surgery. I liked that the book left the disability issues unresolved, focusing on situations that challenge the characters and lead to a fitting end. Ava is able to use her newfound confidence (and perhaps a bit of help from her crutches) to save both herself and her brother during an air raid.
I would recommend this book to those interested in historical fiction involving characters with disabilities. While there are things I could view as problematic from a disability perspective, the way Ava is treated as a girl who happens to have a clubfoot makes the treatment of disability more balanced and nuanced.