Review x 2: The War That Saved My Life and Betsy and Joe

Feb 22, 2019

Guess what? The following books were both ones I picked on my own, for pure pleasure, with no expectations or strings attached. It felt so good, and I enjoyed both of them immensely.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
This book rekindled my love for middle grade novels. It was just so good, and I immediately put the sequel on hold, which is saying something since I'm not usually one to want to read the next book so quickly after the first. But I just really want more of Ada and Susan.

I also thought I was kind of tired of World War II books, but apparently I'm not. Ada's story begins just as Great Britain is on the cusp of joining the war against Germany. Having been confined to a one-room apartment her entire life, it is a beginning, both literally and figuratively, for Ada when her mam decides to send her little brother, Jamie, away to the country with the other school children to avoid the bombs that London is anticipating. Ada decides to leave with him. She doesn't ask permission; she just goes.

For years, Ada's mother has told her that she is worthless, disgusting, and embarrassing because she was born with a club foot. She doesn't deserve to be seen or educated. The cupboard under the sink is the place for her. For a brief few hours, as the train takes them far away from London, Ada puts that behind her as she exhilarates in her freedom. But it all comes rushing back when she and Jamie, grubby and unpleasant and her with a bleeding, throbbing foot, are not chosen by a single adult, and the teacher has to call up and force Ms. Susan Smith to take them.

The character development in this book is phenomenal. Ada's feelings are so complicated. She quickly falls in love with Susan's pony, Butter, and learns to ride him on her own. She makes friends with Lady Thornton's daughter, Maggie, and their stable hand, Fred. But her relationship with Susan is fraught with all of the feelings. She knows Susan didn't want them, and so any overtures of compassion and love from Susan are rejected. She reminds herself often that this is a temporary situation, and she won't let herself get used to Susan's attention. She has horrible flashbacks where all of the details of her previous life in London overwhelm her and make her frantic for escape. She is desperate for her mother's approval and constantly thinks, Maybe if she sees me doing [fill in the blank], then she will love me.

But slowly, her wounds heal, and she becomes capable, strong, and healthy. For Susan's part, having the children in her home begins to heal her of her own deep grief. Susan is wise and forward-thinking and reacts to the children's anger and rejection in a way that is both insightful and commendable. Ada has a complete meltdown on Christmas Eve, triggered by a gift from Susan--a beautiful green velvet dress. Instead of going to the Christmas Eve services at the church as they had planned, Susan wraps Ada up tight in a blanket and holds her until she is finally exhausted from her crying. The next morning, they go down for presents, but Jamie is sure Ada won't get anything because she was "bad" the night before. Susan says, "Not bad. Not bad, Ada. Sad, angry, frightened. Not bad." But Ada thinks, "Sad, angry frightened were bad. It was not okay to be any of those." The way that Susan was able to define Ada's outburst as actual feelings instead of making a blanket diagnosis was beautiful and touching.

This book won a Newbery Honor in 2016, and so I feel like I'm a little late getting to the party. But I'm here now, and this is going on my list of must-recommend reads.

Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace
If pressed to choose a favorite Betsy-Tacy book, I think I would have to pick Betsy and Joe. Rereading it did nothing to change my opinion. I love this book so much.

For one thing, it has all the best scenes with Joe. You spend all of the high school books hoping for more of Joe, and you're finally rewarded in this, their senior year. By this point, he is set on Betsy and doesn't try to hide it. For her part, Betsy is thrilled. She spent the whole year previous wishing for Joe's attentions, and now she has them. Only problem is, Tony, who has always been like a brother to Betsy, now cares about her in a new way. Betsy is so happy to have Tony staying close to home and not jumping freight trains to hang out with older boys that she can't tell him she doesn't care for him in that way. But having two beaus is exhausting and anxiety laden, and eventually, Joe's pride can't handle it anymore: Either she goes with him exclusively or she doesn't. And without giving Betsy a chance to explain, he sticks out his chin in that defiant way of his and leaves her to Tony, which breaks her heart.

This series is closely tied to Maud Hart Lovelace's own life, and it makes me happy to think that all of the high school drama and festivities (the essay cup, the senior picnic, the dances), as well as the lovely home life (singing around the piano, sandwiches on Sunday, letters from Julia) were based on truth. (The one thing that isn't true? Maud and her future husband, Delos, didn't even know each other in high school, so even though Joe's character is based on Delos, their friendship with one another during that time is fictionalized.)

When Joe finally swallows his pride and Betsy finally realizes that she only wants Joe, it is in his aunt and uncle's general store in a tiny rural town. (Coincidentally, it was in this same general store that Betsy first met Joe nearly four years before.) Betsy has spent the week with friends, and her hair is straight and plaited instead of curled and puffed. Joe says, "Do you know, I like your hair straight," and Betsy thinks "if he had looked through all the poetry books in the world, he couldn't have found a better compliment." I could read this scene over and over again. I love it so much.

My other favorite scene is when Betsy is perfectly miserable on Christmas Eve because things have just fallen apart with Joe, but she chooses to put on a happy face and put her whole heart into all of the family traditions. In reflecting on the day, she says, "'It's a wonder I braced up for Christmas Eve. I'm glad I did.' She knew she had helped the family, and as a matter of fact, she had been happy. That, she realized, was because she had stopped thinking about herself." I think it's this one scene that makes the reader see how far Betsy's character has come over her four years of high school. She is willing to set aside her own personal misery for the good of the family, and that's admirable.

I don't know if I'll continue reading the series. To be honest, I kind of like to keep Betsy and Joe at this magical age where they're right on the brink of adulthood and madly in love with each other. The next two books lose a little bit of that because they have to grow up. But I might read Carney's House Party, one of the companion books to the Betsy-Tacy series, which I never read when I was younger.

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