This Light Between Us: A Nov­el of World War II

Andrew Fuku­da

  • Review
By – November 16, 2021

Alex Maki’s ele­men­tary school class on Bain­bridge Island, near Seat­tle, has start­ed a new project. Each stu­dent has received the name and address of a poten­tial pen pal who lives in Europe. Alex thinks his new pen pal, Char­lie, is a boy. He is sur­prised to learn that Char­lie is the nick­name of a girl who lives in Paris. Char­lie and Alex con­tin­ue to cor­re­spond even after the pen pal project ends. They con­fide in one anoth­er, share jokes and car­toons, and grad­u­al­ly become close friends.

Then Pearl Har­bor is bombed in an unex­pect­ed attack by Japan­ese forces. Alex has always known that he is the son of Japan­ese immi­grants, but it nev­er seemed impor­tant before; he knows he is a loy­al, patri­ot­ic cit­i­zen of the Unit­ed States. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many of his school­mates and neigh­bors don’t see it that way. To them, any­one with Japan­ese fea­tures is a poten­tial spy and needs to be harassed and ostra­cized. One day, FBI agents storm into Alex’s house and take his father away. His house is rude­ly and rough­ly searched, and even arti­cles of pure­ly sen­ti­men­tal val­ue are destroyed. Despite the fears, wor­ries, and inse­cu­ri­ties that are fea­tures of his new life, Alex and Char­lie con­tin­ue to cor­re­spond; at times, this is Alex’s only comfort.

Char­lie, mean­while, is find­ing that liv­ing as a Jew­ish girl in France while the Nazis con­tin­ue to gain pow­er is becom­ing more dif­fi­cult by the minute. Anti­semitism is every­where. The streets are haz­ardous, the ter­ror is build­ing, and sud­den­ly yel­low stars must be worn on Charlie’s clothes so she can be iden­ti­fied as a Jew when walk­ing out­doors. She attempts to resist in what­ev­er ways she can, but she faces hor­rors and dan­gers every day. Charlie’s link to Alex through their let­ters is a great com­fort, a life­line. The two con­tin­ue to cor­re­spond, becom­ing clos­er than ever.

When the roundup of the Japan­ese com­mu­ni­ty on Bain­bridge Island is announced, Alex, his broth­er, and their moth­er have no choice but to be shep­herd­ed by sol­diers to the Man­za­nar Relo­ca­tion Cen­ter, a con­cen­tra­tion camp for Japan­ese-Amer­i­can cit­i­zens who will be forced to remain under lock and key for the dura­tion of the war. Alex, aware of the dan­gers faced by Char­lie and her fam­i­ly, wor­ries about her even as he and his fam­i­ly face hard­ships of their own.

Char­lie has been faith­ful­ly writ­ing to Alex all this time but, when her let­ters stop arriv­ing, Alex, hav­ing heard news reports of Nazis round­ing up Jews, becomes fran­tic about her safe­ty. He is told that if he enlists in a seg­re­gat­ed Japan­ese unit in the Amer­i­can army, his father will final­ly be released from prison. He also knows that being sent to Europe will enable him to start to search for Charlie.

War has often been com­pared to hell, and Alex’s expe­ri­ence fits the descrip­tion, but he and his unit fight hero­ical­ly. This unit actu­al­ly exist­ed and is part of the sec­ond World War’s mil­i­tary his­to­ry. It was lat­er acknowl­edged with hon­or and was high­ly dec­o­rat­ed for brav­ery and hero­ic action. Alex’s search for Char­lie is less suc­cess­ful. He traces her to Auschwitz and Dachau and hears about a revolt there in which she may have participated.

This ele­gant­ly writ­ten sto­ry shines with human­i­ty and warmth. The con­nec­tion between these two cre­ative, car­ing, pas­sion­ate peo­ple who have nev­er met face-to-face, but are deeply con­nect­ed soul-to-soul, pul­sates with ener­gy and glows with beau­ty. The author does not equate the two hor­rif­ic, appalling tragedies of Man­za­nar and the Holo­caust, under­stand­ing that the first was an abom­i­na­tion and a sub­ver­sion of Amer­i­can ethics and val­ues while the sec­ond was a geno­cide of his­toric and unprece­dent­ed pro­por­tion. Nev­er­the­less, the trag­ic effects of each are por­trayed in a man­ner that both edu­cates and breaks the heart. Brav­ery and hon­or, as well as hor­ror and heart­break, were found in both. There is much to learn from each for a young read­er liv­ing in the com­pli­cat­ed world of today.
An author’s note and a com­pre­hen­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy are append­ed to this high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry and are use­ful for read­ers who wish to learn more about the his­to­ry of the era.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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