First Lines: He was seventeen the first time he saw her. A February dusk in 1943 on the cold plains of Manzanar. The snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains loomed in the distance, stoic and stark.
As someone who teaches the Holocaust in school every year through novels, I’m always on the lookout for anything new and different. This book, which make a young French Jewish girl and a Japanese-American boy penpals before and during WWII, seemed like it could be a really good addition to my novel list. I needed to read it.
In 1935, when 10-year-old Alex Maki is given a French pen pal for class, he’s disgusted to learn that Charlie Levy is a girl. Despite his reluctance to talk to her, letters fly across the Atlantic between the two of them. They share their hopes for the future and friendship with each other. Until Pearl Harbor and the growing Nazi persecution of Jews force both of them into situations that will make them confront the darker sides of humanity. From the plains of Manzanar to the horrors of Auschwitz and the brutality of European battlefields, they can only hold on to two things: the letters between them and the hope their friendship brings them.
The thing that drew me to this book is how original it is. There are so many Holocaust books out there, but it was really interesting to see one that tied it to Japanese internment camps in the US. It opens up a conversation and I like that.
And honestly, that became my favorite thing about this story. Alex is our narrator, so it heavily favors his experiences in the internment camps, but he is desperate for news of Charlie in France and we learn how that trickle of information came through, how he kept up with the events in Europe to learn what may be happening to her.
It’s a very realistic story. It doesn’t shy away from casual racism or legal rights violations or the worst parts of human nature. It doesn’t shy away from death or greed or brutality. At times, it’s quite painful. But in a story like this, one that is a horrific black eye on American history and covers even worse abroad, that painful realism is necessary to understanding how wrong it was.
Alex, as a character, is charming and naive in the beginning. He doesn’t understand why the government’s doing this to them and why his neighbors and friends are suddenly pretending they don’t have history. We also see so much of him come out in his letters to Charlie and how their friendship grows over time.
My only problem with this book is that the beginning is incredibly slow. I had such a hard time feeling like the story was going anywhere. The initial few chapters are almost entirely letters sent by 9- and 10-year-olds, which isn’t super interesting. It was necessary for character development, but I did seriously consider just giving up on the book a couple of times when I just wasn’t sure I could slog through more. But I’m glad I stuck with it and pressed on.
It’s a touching story. It’s unique and interesting while still having a whole lot of heart.