Deep sigh. Wow. This is not an easy read, but…it will stick with you. Highly recommended if you are looking for an emotional read that will bring tears to your eyes.
In 1935, ten-year old Alex Maki is assigned a pen pal from Paris, France. When his first letter from Charlie arrives, Alex is disappointed to discover that Charlie is a…girl. Nooooo! But Charlie and Alex keep writing. Then, Pearl Harbor happens. Alex, a second-generation Japanese American, is forced into an internment camp. Charlie, a Jewish girl, suddenly stops writing. Alex is determined to find Charlie and make sure she is okay. But how can he do that from an internment camp on a different continent?
THE SHORT VERSION
Grab the tissues. Keep your heart close. This will stick with you for a long, long time.
WHAT I LIKED
Voice. After reading two books in a row where I complained about indistinct character voices, this one was so refreshing. I noticed the voice from the first couple of pages. I could always tell who was writing–Charlie or Alex. The book is only partially-told in letters. The rest is Alex’s perspective, which really works since a major part of the story is Alex trying to find Charlie.
The book has three distinct parts. The first is a few years before Pearl Harbor, when Alex is in school and first starts writing to Charlie. This time is humorous at times, and it sets up Alex and Charlie’s lives before the war.
The second part is when Alex and his family go to the internment camp. It is here that Charlie’s letters stop coming. We also get to see what life was like for Alex in the camp, plus division between Alex and his older brother over the best way to deal with the discrimination. The tone of this section is one of unfairness and anger at the treatment of innocent Japanese Americans.
In the third part, Alex joins the US Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment. The tone here is heart-wrenching survival of impossible situations. Alex is sent to the warfront in Europe. He befriends other soldiers, both Japanese and Hawaiian. Alex survives many battles, but not without considerable emotional and physical injuries. Underscoring this whole section is Alex’s compulsion to find Charlie.
The way the book was structured around these three periods in Alex’s life works well for the story. Each has a different tone, and readers will feel Alex’s frustration, anger, and desperation to find Charlie.
It’s brilliantly-written, and as I mentioned, it will stick with me for a long time.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
I really liked this book, but I will say that there is a magical realism element that comes in suddenly while Alex is at the internment camp. It’s not that this was bad; it’s that it seems to come out of nowhere. I think the story could have been just as strong without it. I almost wonder if this were a bigger part of the story but was trimmed in the editing process. It only comes up a few times and isn’t really that necessary to the story.
Alex is Japanese American. Charlie is French and Jewish. Most characters are Japanese Americans or Hawaiians (Hawaii did not become a US state until 1959).
LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW
Themes: WWII, Japanese internment camps, discrimination, prejudice, Holocaust, concentration camps, pen pals, war, Pearl Harbor
Would adults like this book? YES!
Would I buy this for my high school library? YES! I recommend this to mature readers who are patient with a slower pace. The war scenes are gritty, so be careful recommending this to readers sensitive to blood and gore.
Would I buy this for my middle school library?: NO. This just feels too mature for most middle schoolers.
Language: It’s been a bit since I read this, but I don’t remember major profanity. I can’t guarantee there is nothing though, especially once Alex goes off to war.
Sexuality: mild; Alex has a crush on a girl from school.
Violence: high; the war scenes are realistic. Gun violence, blood, guts, gore, foot rot…it’s not pretty.
Drugs/Alcohol: mild; the teenage soldiers smoke cigarettes.
Other: several deaths, extreme cruelty
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