The year is 1939. And the world, or more specifically Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union, China and the United States of America is on the brink of war. The two books I will be reviewing and comparing today are about this precarious point in history from the perspectives of two young women on opposing sides of the conflict.
The War That Saved My Life
In Britain, ten-year-old Ada is fighting her own small war, struggling with the fear of being separated from her 6-year-old brother, Jamie. Her mother keeps her shut inside and punishes her because of her clubfoot, but her brother is allowed to go wherever he likes. But then Hitler declares war. And everything changes. Jamie is sent away to the country, away from the bombs and fear. And Ada leaves with him, without her mother knowing. The children are placed with a grumpy foster parent, Susan, who learns to love them both for who they are. But then there are bombs. And ponies. And spies. And personal growth. And maybe worst of all, their downright horrible mother. Can Ada find a way to a happy ending, even through all this? And can a war really save someone’s life?
The Book Thief
In Germany, almost ten-year-old Liesel, her 6-year-old brother, Werner, and her mother are on a crowded train, heading to a place where Liesel and her brother will be placed with a foster family. But then Werner dies on the train. And at his burial, Liesel finds- no, steals- a book. The Grave Digger’s Handbook. The first of many to come. Liesel is sent to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. And she’s happy there. For a while. But then Hitler declares war. And everything changes. Hans and Rosa don’t support the Nazi party, even though they pretend they do. So they hide Max, a Jew, in their basement. This, understandably, makes their lives a bit more complicated. The only place Liesel feels safe from the bombs and fear is in between the pages of books. But then there are bombs. And friendship. And hunger. And accordions. And (maybe) worst of all, the narrator, Death. Can Liesel keep her found family and friends together through the secrets that threaten to tear them apart? And do (stolen) books hold the power to change someone’s life?
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ada was such a good character, and you could really see how her limited experience shapes her and makes it hard for her to trust others. She has a tendency to expect the worst from everyone and everything, which is just SO HEARTBREAKING. But this same tendency also makes it really awesome to see her walls break down and her learn to trust Susan and others. She goes through SO MUCH personal growth in the novel; you can’t help but root for her and want her to be happy as you read the book.
Susan, their foster guardian was a wonderful character who was dealing with grief from the loss of her best friend, Becky. When the children came to live with her she was depressed and grieving. She didn’t want to take care of children and was basically forced to by the lady who managed the evacuees. But she truly cared about Ada and Jamie and tried to give them the best life she could, and in the process, became a much happier person.
The backdrop of this novel, WW2, does play a big role in the plot but it’s not the main focus of the book. The focus is on Ada and how she learns to love herself, even with her disability and how she builds a new life in a new home. This may not seem like much of a plot, but it was incredibly compelling (at least for me). The only complaint I have is, well honestly, I can’t think of something to complain about, but I feel like book reviews ought to have complaints in them, so my complaint is that I felt like Ada’s brother Jamie wasn’t as well developed as some of the other characters. I would have liked to see more of how their mother treated him and why he was so attached to her even though she hated them. But it’s only a minor complaint. Overall I really liked this book, and would recommend it to people aged 10 and up who like found family, historical novels, horses, and grumpy but lovable characters.
The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak
The thing about this book is that it makes you fall in love with the characters, and then it PUTS THEM THROUGH HECK and breaks your heart. It’s a bit dark and grim, but there are all these little moments that show you that life goes on even in the most terrible of places. The first thing you notice about this book is that it is narrated by Death. Like, it is LITERALLY narrated by the character Death. In other author’s hands this could come off as cliché, or boring, or simply unbelievable, but Zusak wrote it so you barely question it while reading the book- it just makes sense that Death is the narrator. Some of the characters felt a bit flat, but what I liked about all the characters was that they were just regular people whose lives had been turned upside down by Hitler’s rule. I especially liked Liesel’s foster father, Hansel because he was a really good dad who smelled like pipe smoke, played the accordion, and taught Liesel to read. The plot was a bit meandering and was over a longer time frame than most books I like, but it was effective at showing what Nazi Germany was like for German citizens, which is something that I haven’t seen done before. Overall I liked this book, but it wasn’t my favorite. Mostly because of the ending which I can’t tell you about because SPOILERS, but you can be assured that I’m bitter about it. I would recommend this book to people over 12 who like books, thinking about the meaning of life and death and other super deep things like that, crying, found family and crying some more.
Common threads and uncommon threads
What I really found interesting was that both Liesel and Ada dealt with a fair amount of PTSD from the traumatic events in their lives. With Liesel it manifested in nightmares about her brother, and with Ada it was more like panic attacks about when her mother stuffed her in cupboards. But they both had their foster parents to look out for them and take care of them, which is just so sweet and I- I just can’t. *slumps down to the desk and makes sad noises*. Other similarities between the two include that they both felt a need to take care of the brother figures in their lives, they were both foster children, and they both were affected greatly by the war. Both books deal with loss, and moving through that loss. An important difference is that The Book Thief deals more with the changes happening around Liesel, while The War That Saved My Life deals more with the changes happening inside Ada. I would recommend that you read both books together if you want a deeper understanding of how World War 2 affected civilians on both the Allied and Axis sides.