I’ve always loved meeting people from different countries. Growing up in rural New York State, most of the people in my hometown were from the area or the United States. There were a few foreign exchange students during my high school years, but it wasn’t until I spent the semester in England during college that I got a firsthand look at what living in another country was like. How different it was and how much there was that I took for granted. This is the focus of this book review.

I Will Always Write Back is a dual memoir co-written by American Caitlin Alifirenka and Zimbabwe native Martin Ganda, with Liz Welch. Caitlin and Martin met through a pen pal program that began in 1997 when they were both twelve years old. The book covers the six-year period of them growing up in their respective countries, and how their correspondence affects each other’s perspectives of the world and changes their lives for the better.

The story is structured to flip back and forth between Caitlin’s and Martin’s points of view. In the first few chapters, Caitlin talks about her busy school life, while Martin’s education consists of a school where six children share a desk. Caitlin’s rural Pennsylvania upbringing consists of deciding what to wear to school and going out with friends, while Martin only has a few outfits to wear and spends most of his free time earning money for his family.

The format did a great job of showing the contrast between Caitlin’s and Martin’s lifestyles. Caitlin realizes after the first several letters how much she has compared to Martin, and begins to send him and his family care packages. Their relationship only strengthens as they both begin to pursue their future education and experience certain world events, such as September 11.

Caitlin writes about how grateful she is to be able to write Martin about what’s been going on in her life without judgement, as he’s not someone she sees everyday and someone who’s not involved in the everyday drama of middle school and high school life. Martin on the other hand uses Caitlin’s letters about the United States as an escape from his sometimes difficult life. I loved how each of them benefitted from the correspondence in their own ways. I related to the notion of having international friends to write to about what’s been going on lately, though most communications are digital nowadays.

I definitely recommend this novel to anyone who likes to learn about living in different countries or had a pen pal growing up.

 

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