by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
First sentence: “I’d never heard of Zimbawe.”
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Content: It’s a non-fiction book that deals with teens, and so there’s some mention of teen drinking and pot smoking, but for the most part it’s pretty harmless. It’ll be in the middle readers biography section, though I’d hesitate giving it to the younger end of the readers. I think it’ll be best for grades 5 and up.
In the fall of 1997, Caitlin Stoicsitz made an impromptu decision that changed multiple lives. She raised her hand to get a pen pal, and her letter was sent to Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe. You wouldn’t think something as simple as that would be life-changing, but it was. Caitlin’s letter got sent to a small, rural school in Mutare, and by chance Martin, who was one of the best students in class, was on the receiving end. He wrote back, and that was the beginning of what became a deep friendship for them. And because of that friendship, Caitlin was able to change Martin’s life, to give him the opportunities — especially educational — that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. For what seems like mere pittance, Caitlin (and eventually her whole family) was able to pay Martin’s fees for school (especially since his father was out of work) and help him get into a U. S. College. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but as you get to know both Caitlin and Martin over the course of the book, you realize that it IS.
In return, Martin gave Caitlin something that many Americans desperately need: a view of how everyone else lives. Compassion for the downtrodden, and a knowledge that we really, truly are privileged in America.
Like many memoirs, this one is uneven. It’s chatty, and sometimes Caitlin’s narrative borders on whiny, neither of which might bother the intended audience, but kind of grated on me. I also felt like there was a bit of the “American savior swoops in to save the day” which also kind of grated.
But I do honestly believe that Caitlin and Martin have a bond, and I do believe that writing and responding to the letters, when one truly cares and when one is open to other ideas, can change lives.
And this book is a good reminder of that.