Sunday, April 28, 2019

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

This book is part of our not-particularly-systematic exploration of the Newbery Award and Honor books. It was an honor book in 2016. 

Sometimes, you are surprised by a book in a way you didn’t anticipate, and this was one of them. I believe this book is targeted more toward middle school kids rather than elementary, which makes sense, because it deals with some pretty heavy themes, and has a lot of darkness along with the light. My kids are pretty used to this sort of stuff, but your mileage may very. Sensitive younger kids might not deal well with the (all too realistic) physical and emotional abuse by a parent.

Here is the basic setup: Ada is a 10 year old girl who was born with a club foot. Because of her mother’s poverty, it was never treated. Instead, her mother, who never wanted children, and was furious at the fates when she was left widowed with two of them, viciously hates Ada, and imprisons her in their flat, not allowing her to speak to other people or go to school. Ada’s younger brother Jamie is “normal,” and is allowed to go to school. He is generally treated better than Ada - in fact, every fault in Jamie is punished against Ada - if he messes up, she spends the night under the sink. I’ll be blunt here: this is some pretty rough abuse in this book. I would say it was gratuitous, except that I have too much professional experience with abusive parents. I have seen worse. Definitely worse. And, as in real life, the physical abuse is less damaging than the psychological abuse.

So, World War Two breaks out, and London parents are encouraged to send their children to the countryside, so that they won’t get bombed by the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Mam is willing to let Jaime go, but insists that Ada stay. She has other ideas, however, and sneaks out with Jaime. The two of them are taken by train to a village in Cornwall, where nobody wants them - they are too dirty and ratty and unpromising.

The local head of the Women’s Volunteer Service decides to essentially force the two of them on Susan Smith, a local woman who has a...questionable reputation. To our modern minds, it isn’t too hard to figure out Susan’s issues, but back then, she described herself as “not a nice person,” and “not equipped to care for children.” As the story progresses, we learn her history, and why she is how she is. And (not much of a spoiler), she actually is a nice person - she’s more of a non-conventional person with some serious demons of her own to address.

As you might imagine, this situation is a disappointment to Jamie - the favorite child - and heaven on earth to Ada, who has never experienced tolerance, let alone love, before in her life. For her, the war is literally a lifesaver, allowing her to escape abuse and find a place for herself in the world - and indeed experience hope for the first time.

There is more, of course, and I risk spoilers if I were to get into the details too far. But I do want to address the subtext a bit, because I think it is fascinating.

Susan Smith, in addition to sharing a coincidental last name with Ada and Jamie, has a past. And not just any old past.

She is a lesbian, even though the book doesn’t explicitly spell that out. Anyone with a bit of perception can figure it out. (And that is exactly why a good number of Fundie Mommy Bloggers have their panties in an absolute knot about this book. Seriously, I Googled it, and a whole bunch came up before the more reasonable reviews of the book.)

The book brings this out gradually, and never explicitly. Susan mentions that she hasn’t been the same since her best friend (and housemate) Becky died three years ago. They essentially had (it is strongly implied) a “Boston Marriage.” Gradually, we learn that Susan was the daughter of a clergyman, who disowned her after she went to college and “changed,” and met Becky. Susan also mentions that she doesn’t actually dislike children, but since she wasn’t interested in marrying a man...she assumed she wouldn’t have them. It’s easy to read between the lines.

As it turns out, Susan is an excellent foil for Mam. If you think about it, Mam was quite interested in marrying a man, but didn’t want children. Her husband (as it turns out) called her “unnatural” and somehow either convinced or raped her into having kids. (We never find out for sure.) When he was killed in an accident, she was left with children she never wanted, crushing poverty, and no perceived future. That she took her rage at the universe out on Ada is sad and horrifying, but not that surprising. So there you have an interesting contrast: Susan wants kids but not a man, Mam wants a man but not kids. Again, this is pretty dang realistic - something the Fundies of my background aren’t really interested in acknowledging or understanding.

In fact, the Fundie Mommy Bloggers with their panties in a wad were almost equally horrified at both of these problems. A lesbian was a good parent? Horrors! A heterosexual woman didn’t fit the stereotype of wanting to be a mother more than anything in the world? That can’t possibly be true! Real women are perfectly willing - nay, eager! - to make babies the centerpiece of their lives and eschew a career and a life and a personality to do so. That’s God’s Perfect Plan for People With Vaginas™! So yes, totally subversive - and also totally realistic in my experience. People don’t fit into the neat little boxes at all.

It gets even worse! The author weaves a theme through the book which points toward tolerance - nay embrace - of innate differences and diversity which definitely subverts the Fundie insistence on conformity and rigid societal and gender roles.

Ada has her clubfoot - which is a congenital defect, correctable by proper treatment. But her mother blames Ada - it is the result of her moral failings somehow. (I can’t help but think of the Gospel of John, chapter 9...the religious establishment is SO determined to find a cause for non-conformity in the sinfulness of the person or parents…) But of course, we know (thanks to modern understandings of medicine and genetics) that neither Ada nor her parents are to blame for this - it is how she was born, and, while she is too old to ever be “fixed” completely, she can improve. But more than that: she is entitled to her own freedom, her own self determination, and her chance to be the best she can be. Thus, when her mother takes away her crutches, and attempts to reduce her to imprisonment in a room again, we know this is wrong, whatever the old superstitions may tell us. We instinctively know that Ada is entitled to live her own best life - even if her foot is never perfect. We cheer for her as she learns to compensate for her deficits and learns to ride a horse. We applaud as she finds her mobility and her independence. We cheer as she learns to read despite the way her mother has told everyone (including her) that she is mentally deficient.

There is more, though. Jamie may be the “favorite” child - although it turns out Mam doesn’t really love him either - she just uses him as a way to express her hatred for Ada - but he has his own dark secret. He is left handed. This causes his teacher to literally tie his left hand to the desk until it rubs raw. Susan flips out, and makes sure that doesn’t happen again. The teacher repeats the “traditional” line: left handedness was considered a sign of the Devil. Literally. Actually, let’s explore that one. Have you ever heard the term “sinister”? What does that term mean, and where did it come from? Believe it or not, “sinister” literally comes from the idea of left handedness. It is the opposite of “dexter” - the root of dexterity and dextrous. To be left handed was to be evil - because difference from the majority is evil, right? Right?

My mother is left handed, and she too grew up in a time when they used abusive methods to try to force left handed children into being right handed - or at least functioning as right handed persons in public. I heard the stories from her as a kid. On the plus side, she can kind of write slowly with her right hand. But she realized that she was left handed, and uses that hand exclusively for writing now. There was nothing evil about how she was born - and indeed created by God - she was just different.

This is ultimately the problem that Fundies and Evangelicals (my former religious tribe) keep running up against in the whole discussion of sexuality.

Reality doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your dogma. Particularly if it is the result of millennia of belief in the idea of female inferiority to males (perhaps a future post…) Ultimately, one has to either make adjustments to reflect new knowledge and new understandings - or one must (as one can see with the Taliban or the Saudi government) engage in increasing brutality to exterminate anyone who fails or refuses to conform to dogma.

A belief that left handed people had the sign of the Devil - and the endless attempts to force them into righthandedness - didn’t eliminate left handed people. It just caused them thoroughly unnecessary pain and trauma. And allowed the majority to experience the masturbatory pleasure of self-righteousness about how they were born “normal.”

If you want to understand how Fundies/Evangelicals are catastrophically losing the battle for hearts and minds over sexuality in general, this is a good place to start. They are bloodying themselves against reality, over and over again. I guess they can’t feel the pain because they are so intent on the pleasure their self-righteous spiritual masturbation gives them. (Although I suspect some of them are trying to drown out their own sexuality…) It isn’t hard to see the dogmatic teacher, willing to torture a child to make him conform to righthandedness in those who casually and flippantly decide to decree celibacy for all who are outside the majority. There is no limit to the pain and torture they will inflict on others, as they are smug in their “normalcy.”

There are other interesting facets to this book: the horrors and terror of war. The obvious connection of the Nazis - who tried to exterminate LGBTQ people along with ethnic and racial minorities as they devastated anyone who stood in their way - including British civilians. The exploration of grief, depression, and PTSD. Susan’s grief and recurring clinical depression (although that term isn’t used) corresponds well to Ada’s PTSD resulting from her abuse. Bradley handles these issues with an age-appropriate touch - while never actually naming them. After all, a person in 1939 wouldn’t have our own knowledge and terminology, but would certainly have experienced these universally human responses to trauma and abuse.

This book was a bit darker and heavier than I expected, but I think it was a good one for my kids. (And they can definitely handle this stuff - we have listened to and discussed plenty of darker and heavier books.) I can see why this book panicked Fundies: it directly challenges the idea that religious dogma justifies hatred and persecution of non-conforming human beings. For the exact same reason, I believe it was a good one for my children to experience - and I recommend it for other parents who want to explain these issues to their children. It is an empathetic and well written introduction to the concepts of non-conformity, superstition, and human thriving. It also is optimistic about the possibility of positive change, even as it acknowledges that some people - like Mam - are unable or unwilling to show basic human decency. And the best way to deal with those people is to stop them from harming others, and let them destroy themselves with their own hatred if they insist on doing so. And, of course, to rescue the victims of abusers (and abusive religions) and help them to thrive.

I can’t help but suspect that at least some of these self-righteous Fundie Mommy Bloggers who have their panties in a wad over this book will turn out to have LGBTQ children of their own. It will be (darkly) interesting to see how they respond. When it is your kid, shit gets real, and you can’t just enjoy your maturbatory fantasy that somehow you did everything “right” and your kids turned out cis-het, thus giving proof of your righteousness. No longer can they really ask “did my kid sin or did I sin?” without any personal consequence. At some point, they are going to have to choose their future. Will they re-evaluate their dogma? Or will they choose, like Mam, to alienate their own flesh and blood, and live estranged and without the love they could have embraced. I have seen it go both ways, personally and professionally.

Read this book. Discuss it with your kids. Choose love and not abuse. And embrace the spectrum of humanity that God (or Nature if you prefer) has created - seek to help others thrive rather than force them into your dogmatic view of conformity.

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