Prather’s Pick: A letter that changed two lives
May 12, 2015
This week's book is written for teen readers (juvenile/young adult), but older readers will enjoy reading it, too. I liked it a lot! It's an inspirational book and a true story. "I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" was written by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch (who helped Caitlin and Martin tell their story). The book is published by Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
Their story began in September 1997 when Caitlin's seventh-grade English teacher announced that the school was starting a pen pal program and asked the students to pick a name from the list of countries on the chalkboard. Caitlin had already traveled to Europe and Canada with her family so she chose the last name on the list — Zimbabwe. Her teacher said it was a country in Africa. Caitlin didn't know anything about Africa; that was about to change.
Caitlin lived in Hatfield, Pennsylvania with her mother, Anne, an elementary school teacher; her father, Rich, who worked with energy contracts for the government; and her 17-year-old brother, Richie. That night after school Caitlin wrote a general pen pal letter that began "Hi" since she didn't know who her pen pal would be yet. She just wrote about playing softball and eating pizza and liking to shop at the mall. But it was the letter that began a distance relationship that changed two lives.
It was October 1997 when Caitlin's letter, along with nine others, arrived at Martin Ganda's school in Zimbabwe. There were 50 students in the classroom, so many that four students shared a desk (and everyone shared two textbooks). Students were put in groups by their placement scores. Martin was in Group One which meant that he got to sit in the front row, and the front row got the 10 letters. Mrs. Jarai, the teacher, asked the students to read their letters to the class.
That night Martin wrote a letter back to Caitlin. It was a general letter, too. He wrote about liking to play soccer, what grade he was in, and the names of his siblings. He promised to write to her. Much later on, Caitlin would learn that Martin and his family lived in Chismba Singles, which was really a room where they dressed and slept. Cooking was done outdoors over a fire, shared with other tenants. Martin's father worked at the Mutare Board and Paper Mill. Martin's family was a father, mother, and siblings: Lois, George, Simba and Nation. Martin's family was very poor.
So the letter writing continued over six years. The story is told from Caitlin and Martin's point of view, in alternating chapters. As they got to know each other, Caitlin sent Martin little gifts, including a dollar bill. Caitlin did not realize that the dollar bill was worth twenty-four Zim dollars. When food was getting low for Martin's family, they were forced to cash in Caitlin's dollar, which bought enough groceries for two weeks — beans, collard greens, tea and bread.
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Children in Zimbabwe had to pay to go to school so Caitlin sent Martin some of her babysitting money with her letters — twenty to forty dollars. But when Martin's father lost his job, the money was used to pay the rent and buy food. Martin needed money to stay in school. Caitlin's mother and father got involved and stayed involved for years, including efforts to bring Martin to America to attend college.
This is a great book! The hardcover book costs $18. You can also find it with new books at the Craig Moffat County Library.