Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Review of 'I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives' by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda

Note: this is one of a few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"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 her class.  But he was the top student, so he got the first one.

The 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."

I remember picking up this book over the summer when I went on a walk with a little girl and her adorable dog.  My home city and my adopted one are both cool because they have these things called Little Libraries scattered throughout the city in front of businesses and private homes.  I once saw one that looked like the TARDIS from Doctor Who!  But any way, I happened upon this book on our walk in her neighborhood.

This book starts with a simple class project of writing to pen pals around the world.  Each student in Caitlin's class picks a country and writes a letter to someone their age.  They don't know a name, they don't know if they're writing to a boy or a girl... the person on the other side of their correspondence is a mystery.  Caitlin's friends all write to someone in part of Europe.  Caitlin was drawn to Zimbabwe and it was the best decision she ever made for her life.

Martin Ganda was at the top of his class, but struggled to stay in school financially (since he had to pay to go to school).  He was lucky to receive Caitlin's letter.  Had his grades been lower or if he had failed a test or two, he might not have gotten Caitlin's letter.  One thing that I love about Martin is his curiosity towards Caitlin's life in the U.S.  He never complained to Caitlin about the problems he and his family were facing, even though days would go by where his mother would give up food so that her children could live.  When Caitlin asked to see a picture of him, he went and fo und the only picture his family had of him and he sent it to her.  He didn't stop and tell her his situation and that pictures were very expensive.  It's awfully big of him, especially since this is a facade that can be difficult to keep up, and eventually it did become too hard to keep a secret.  

It felt a little odd that Caitlin's family was supporting Martin's family.  I know that they were financially able to support Martin's family and that it was something that they wanted to do... I also know that that helped change Martin and his family's lives forever and that they were extremely grateful... but I have this idea in my head, maybe from something at church where we were talking about relief work and how the best way to help someone is to teach the people in the area that is being relieved a skill.  You can feed people fish and they won't go hungry now, but if you teach them how to fish, they'll never be hungry.  That sort of mentality.  This story didn't match up with this idea in my brain.  But I think what made me feel a lot better was that that support shifted from Caitlin's family to Martin as he finished school and started to go out and show the world what a gifted guy he is.  He's ridiculously good with numbers!

I admired Martin's drive throughout the story.  His drive to not only do well in school, but stay in school and get caught up when he fell so far behind from not being able to pay his tuition to stay in school.  He was resourceful and extremely motivated in a way that a number of students in first world countries (I'm sorry, I don't know a better term) just aren't.  We take our education for granted, whether that is the education we're legally obligated to receive or whether it's higher education at a university, technical, or trade school that we opt to receive.  That was a big thought that ran through my head as I was reading this book.  

I haven't really had a successful pen pal relationship in my life, but this book made me think a lot about the international relationships that I have made and how important those have been in shaping how I think about the world.  It's so cool to read about international connections like the ones that Martin and Caitlin made.  This was a really great read.

I give 'I Will Always Write Back':
Thanks for Reading!


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