Pen pals: Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda. CreditPhotographs by Anne Neville
In a suburban Pennsylvania classroom in 1997, a life-altering moment: Caitlin Alifirenka, “a typical 12-year-old American girl,” more interested in what she “should wear to school” than what she “might learn there,” chooses a pen pal from Zimbabwe. Caitlin has never heard of Zimbabwe, but the name, “exotic, and difficult to pronounce,” intrigues her.
The pen pal she’s matched with is a studious, cheerful, bright 14-year-old boy named Martin Ganda. Admonished by his mother that “school is your only hope,” he has made it his goal always to be No. 1 in his class so he can earn a scholarship for college. He and his friends “all knew and loved America, . . . the land of Coca-Cola and the W.W.F.,” and Caitlin’s first letter, bubbly, effusive, quintessentially American in its references to roller skating and bowling, pizza and the Backstreet Boys, enchants him. She, in turn, is charmed by his exuberance and integrity, and likens his letter to “a winning lottery ticket.”
But while Caitlin enjoys a comfortable middle-class life, Martin’s family is desperately poor; they live in one of Zimbabwe’s worst slums and share one room with another family, a mattress their only furniture. It becomes hard for Martin to reciprocate Caitlin’s friendly gestures. A photograph is prohibitively expensive. He has to carry luggage for tips simply to keep up their correspondence. So he makes “the only promise that I knew I could keep: that I would always write back, no matter what.”
“I Will Always Write Back” is Caitlin and Martin’s dual pen-pal autobiography, told in their alternating voices. Written with Liz Welch, it spans the six years from their first exchange of letters to Martin’s arrival on United States soil, where he will study at Villanova on a full scholarship secured for him by Caitlin’s indefatigable, big-hearted mother, and go on to earn an M.B.A. from Duke University.
Initially, Martin decides “to keep it light”; he doesn’t want to “trouble Caitlin with my life worries or scare her off.” But as things worsen for his family after his father loses his menial job and Caitlin begins to worry about why he hasn’t written her, he decides to tell her the truth. Even paper is too expensive, so he has to write his letter on a discarded ice-cream bar wrapper. Seeing the wrapper and hearing that Martin has had to leave school because his family can’t pay the fees, Caitlin sends him $20 she earned babysitting.
One of the story’s most important messages is how small contributions can have a huge impact. The dollar Caitlin sends pays for “enough groceries for two weeks,” while that $20 is “more money than my father made in several months,” Martin writes, and enables him to return to school. Medicine from Caitlin’s grandmother’s bathroom saves Martin’s mother ’s life when she’s stricken with malaria.
Caitlin is transformed, as well. She comes to see how “truly privileged” she is, and that things she took for granted are “total luxuries.” She realizes “how much injustice was happening in the world.” Martin’s medical aspirations inspire her to pursue a career in nursing.
Penpalsmanship is usually rote and sentimental, and this book sometimes has that feel. If the story weren’t true, it would be considerably harder to read. Caitlin’s and Martin’s endearing personalities come across far more vividly in the excerpts from their charming letters than in the rest of the book, though Martin’s sections are both more inherently interesting and better written than Caitlin’s. (“My crush on Matt grew until I could not take the pressure that whirred inside me every time I saw him in algebra.”)
But the remarkable tenacity of these two souls pulled like magnets across the world by their opposite polarities — one committed to helping, the other to surviving — is deeply affecting. There is no way to read their account without feeling vulnerable to just that stab at sympathy that started their story. It is quite a little miracle of unexpected genuineness.
I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK
How One Letter Changed Two Lives
By Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch
Illustrated. 392 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $18. (Young adult; ages 12 and up)
Priscilla Gilman is the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”
A version of this review appears in print on May 10, 2015, on page BR19 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Whole New World.