Review: I Will Always Write Back

I Will Always Write Back
Authors: Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 392
Genre: Nonfiction (Memoir)
Review Copy: Won in Internet giveaway
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends–and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.

Review: Caitlin Alifirenka chose to have a penpal in Zimbabwe because the country sounded different and exotic. The name caught her attention. She didn’t know much about Africa and figured this would be a way to learn. That concerned me a bit. I worried that this would only be a look at how unusual Martin and his life was and that Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa only consists of impoverished people. Over time, readers do see that there is more to Zimbabwe than exotic animals, grass huts and poverty. Martin’s family does have very little, but through Martin’s visits to relatives and a boarding school, readers see that poverty is not the only story of Africa.

The text consists of alternating chapters from Caitlin and Martin. There is narrative mixed with their letters or portions of letters from their time as school penpals. Caitlin and Martin began exchanging letters and their correspondence lasted much longer than the school year. Caitlin found it easy to share her daily life with Martin. He was always positive about her and encouraged her so she told him about disagreements with friends, vacations, and things you would share with a close friend. Martin was more reserved. For quite some time, he was not precisely hiding the difficulties his family faced, but he wasn’t pointing them out. If Caitlin had read between the lines, she may have seen that his living conditions were more than a little challenging, but she truly couldn’t imagine that their homes and way of living were radically different. They both had loving families, but they had vastly differing access to resources.

Over time, Caitlin had a growing realization that Martin was smart, but could not stay in school because his family didn’t have enough money to keep him there. Caitlin began sending money. Later, when the needs exceeded what she could provide, she and Martin began to get more people involved.

What was nice about the book is that the voices seemed honest and real. Caitlin doesn’t try to hide the fact that she had been privileged and unaware of how others may be living. She has a giving heart and as her eyes are opened, she begins to look for ways to help not just Martin, but others too. Martin and his family definitely benefit from the love and resources Catilin and her family provide. Martin also helps Caitlin to see a wider world as he overcomes his reluctance to let her know about his families day to day life and struggles.

The book is written in a very conversational style so though it is a little lengthy, even younger readers, middle school or even possibly upper elementary, could read it rather quickly. I can’t help but feel this had an air of “white savior” to it as Caitlin and her family save the day many times, but Martin was also working at changing his circumstances. Had he not been keeping up with his studies, excelling in school, and seeking out all available resources, the work that was being done on the U.S. side would not have been effective.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you are a fan of memoirs or ever had a penpal (both of which apply to me). It’s interesting to see how two people connected  and caused a change in the life of the other. These voices reminded me that people are never too young to make a difference.