In 1935, ten-year-old Alex Maki from Bainbridge Island, Washington is disgusted when he’s forced to become pen pals with Charlie Lévy of Paris, France—a girl. He thought she was a boy. In spite of Alex’s reluctance, their letters continue to fly across the Atlantic—and along with them, the shared hopes and dreams of friendship. Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the growing Nazi persecution of Jews force them to confront the darkest aspects of human nature.
From the desolation of an internment camp on the plains of Manzanar to the horrors of Auschwitz and the devastation of European battlefields, the only thing they can hold onto are the memories of their letters. But nothing can dispel the light between them.
This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda will be available on January 7. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
[dropcap type=”circle”]D[/dropcap]ear Alex Maki,
Hello! My name is Charlie Lévy. I am your new “pen pal” in France. Nice to meet you!
You are in America! Ouah, so far away! Last week Mme Dubois say to my English class avancé, “Who want to do a letter exchange program with American school?” And everyone is so happy. Me the most! Because I am wanting an American pen pal for a very long time. Now I am very excited—can you see my shaking words? Sorry! And sorry for my poor English. Even though I am studying English for many years and have English nanny at home, I think I have a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes.
Anyway, Mme Dubois say I must introduce myself in this first letter.
My name is Charlie Lévy. I am ten years old. My Papa owns a big shoe factory. My Maman is busy at home with me. Our English nanny, Katherine, is from London. We live in Paris, a beautiful city. Do you know the Tower of Eiffel? It is famous! I can see it from my bedroom window. Maybe if you have a big world map you can find Paris.
What about you? Do you have brother and sister? Do you play sport or music? What are your hobbys? I like to study English, play cello, paint eggs, eat anything with Dundee marmalade, and swimming (but I hate swimsuits. I wish I was a boy—it is so easy for them, no?) And now I have a new favorite hobby—writing to my American pen pal!
Do you like reading? I love to read! My English nanny say the best book in history is Jane Eyre, and one day I will read it. But only when my English is good enough. (I will not read the French edition—that is cheating, no?) My dream is one day I am studying English Literature at Sorbonne University. Do you know Sorbonne University? It is the best university in the Earth!
I tell you something funny now. I make a new friend last week. She is from Helsinki, Finland, and her name is Aleksandra Mäki. We call her “Alex” so her nickname is Alex Mäki! Like you, no? Maybe you are relatives? Maybe you are twins? (I am laughing now.)
Please write back. I am excited!
April 9, 1935
Wait . . . you’re a girl?
April 13, 1935
My teacher Mrs. Graff wasn’t happy when she learned I wasted a stamp on a letter that was only one sentence long. So she’s making me write a “real” letter now. It has to be at least one page, she said. I actually complained to her about you being a girl. She said it was a simple mix-up—she thought you were a boy. Anyway, it’s too late to change pen pals because everyone is already paired up. She told me that I’m just going to have to make do. So I guess I’m stuck with you. The worst part is the whole class knows now.
Mrs. Graff is making me introduce myself, too. There’s not much to say. My dad’s a strawberry farmer, my mom’s a strawberry farmer’s wife, my brother’s a strawberry farmer’s son.
I looked up France on a world map. I’m not impressed. It’s really puny compared to AMERICA, isn’t it? And Paris is just a tiny black dot on the map. No offense, but that’s your capital? What’s that like, living in such a small city? Do you feel trapped all the time? Is it hard to breathe?
So you can see the Eiffel Tower from your bedroom, can you now? Tell me, will they ever finish building it? Because I’ve seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower, and it looks like they started building it, then realized how ugly it was going to turn out. So they just up and left. Nothing but the ugly metal scaffolding left behind.
I also read that you French people don’t like to shower, and that you’re all really smelly. I think that’s true. When I sniffed your letter, I smelled something really foul. Like underarm odor combined with a fart. Maybe your farts are especially nasty because you eat too much Dundee marmalade. And just what the heck is Dundee marmalade?
I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t play any musical instruments. I don’t like to fish or hunt or play sports. I especially don’t like writing letters. The only thing I like to do is read and draw comics. The Famous Funnies. #3 and #5 are cool. #8 ain’t too bad.
And now I’ve finished filling up this one page so I can stop.
P.S. If you ever want to stop this stupid pen-pal thing, I won’t be offended. In your next letter, just write two words, I QUIT, and I’ll show it to Mrs. Graff. You don’t even have to write it in English, you can just write Je quit if that’s easier for you.
4 May 1935
Dear Alex Maki,
You are funny American boy! Let us keep writing!
Yours sincerely, Charlie Lévy
THREE YEARS LATER
18 March 1938
Hello! This letter is celebrating our three-year anniversary as pen pals! Can you believe it? I can’t. I never think we will be pen pals for so long. All my classmates stopped after only one year, but we are still writing. Thank you for putting up with all my poor English! Pouah, will I ever improve? You keep telling me yes, but I wonder!
Oh, and thank you for listening (reading?) to everything in my life: my fights with my parents, my different hobbies (now I like tap dancing!), and the new boy I like at school (as you say, my new “flavor of the month”!!).
Your letters and funny drawings always make me forget the horrible things that are happening here in Europe. They make me forget Hitler and his stupid moustache and his oily hair and his crazy eyes, and how he comes closer and closer to France.
Haha! You keep asking me what I look like! You are always asking me! Okay, I will tell you now: I think I am a little pretty but not very pretty. Maybe pretty but in a different way. I think I have a certain fire in my eyes, like a purpose? A sharp focus that boys find pretty? Sometimes when I am reading a book in English class, I see them staring at me. And when I look up, they quickly move their eyes away, blushing.
Okay, now that we are writing for three years, I have a confession. I lied to you two years ago. You ask if I like strawberries and I said yes. But now I tell you the truth: I do not like strawberries. They are pretty to look at, but when I eat one, J’ai envie de vomir. Sorry. I lie before because you are a strawberry farmer son. I do not want to offend you.
Sorry for this small lie. Even small lies can destroy a big relationship. So inside this envelope I put a French flower. This is how I say sorry to you. I do not know the English name of this flower but in France, we call it œillet rose. It has a nice smell and pretty pink color, no? But maybe when you get it, it is dead. Maybe it is black and has bad smell in envelope (I am laughing!).
April 15, 1938
Your œillet rose arrived œillet dead. But it wasn’t black or smelly so you can stop laughing now. By the way, how the heck do you pronounce œillet? Because what is œ? Why are the o and e mashed together like Siamese twins?
Anyway, you don’t need to apologize about not liking strawberries. I’m not too keen on them myself. All my life I’ve planted them, sown them, picked them, harvested them, smelled them, sold them, eaten them. My whole life. I’ d be fine never seeing another one again. Which is why I can’t wait to go off to college and do something else with my life. Like become a cartoonist. Actually, not like a cartoonist, but to become exactly a cartoonist. That’s my dream job. (Note: this is a carefully guarded secret. My parents would have a fit if they found out. Because they’ve got designs on their youngest child becoming a dentist or something.)
Speaking of secrets . . .
Since you made a confession, I feel it only right that I confess something, too. Sit down because this is kind of a big confession. Okay, here goes.
I’m not really who you think I am. Do you remember how you once asked me to describe myself? And I may have told you that I have blond hair and blue eyes. Well, that’s not quite true. In fact, it’s not true at all. I actually have black hair and brown eyes. And my surname Maki is not Scandinavian in origin (in fairness, I never claimed that, you simply assumed it was. Yes, you did, I can show it to you in your very first letter). My family name Maki is actually Japanese. My parents are from Japan. My father was born in a city called Hiroshima. My mother is from Osaka. But my brother and I, we were born in America.
The reason I never corrected you is because you kept saying how excited you were to have an American pen pal. I guess I just didn’t want to disappoint you that I’m not actually a “real” American.
11 May 1938
You are an idiot. That’s how we French call someone very very very stupid.
You should never tell me such stupid lie about you. No, it is worse than stupid lie, it is UGLY lie. I am so mad at you I can’t remember my English and spelling is bad and grammer is bad and everything are bad because I am so angry, you are an idiot.
Maybe you are disappointed in me, yes? Because I am not a “real” French pen pal? Because I do not have yellow hair? Because I do not have blue eyes or green eyes? Because I have ordinary brown hair and brown eyes? Because I have a Jewish name, and Jewish face? Because I do not have French last name like Dubois or Beaumont or Lefebvre?
I am so angry I think I will not write to you for two
weeks months years.
P.S. You are an IDIOT!!
12 May 1938
Okay. I am calmer now. But you are still an idiot.
June 1, 1938
Yes, I’m an idiot. Sorry. I should never have misled you.
To apologize, I’m sending you a pink hair band. And no, I didn’t steal it from my mother, I actually had to go into the city to buy it. Just so you know, it took me hours—first the ferry to Seattle, then hours walking the hot downtown streets. Then finally Tilton’s department store where I had to fight through the crowds and fork over my hard-earned cash.
Since I’m sending you an expensive pink hair band, can you send me something in return?
Like a picture of yourself?
I’m only asking because Frank doesn’t think you’re real. He keeps saying you’re nothing but a figment of my lonely imagination. Even though I’ve shown him all your letters, dozens stored in milk crates over the years, he still doesn’t believe me. He says he doesn’t see how any girl—especially a Paris girl—could find a loner like me interesting, all I do is read and daydream at home all day, my head in the clouds.
So if you could just send me one picture, I think it would convince him you’re real. (Especially if you’re pretty. And I think you are. Sometimes you can tell, just from a person’s handwriting.)
Would you, Charlie? Send me a photo?
Let me ask in my high school French. Maybe that’ll sway you. Voulez-vous envoyer à moi une photo de vous s’il vous plait? That’s two years of French, baby!
29 June 1938
No, I will not send you my picture. Why should I when you never sent me your picture? Of course, now I understand why—until a few months ago, you were pretending to be a white person.
Also: in your letter you wrote that my picture will “make a difference” but only if I am pretty. What does that mean? If I am not a pretty girl (and I am not saying if I am or am not)—do I now suddenly not matter?
And don’t call me “baby.” Never, never, never!
I think I will not send you my picture. Ever. Even if you send me your picture now, I will not send you mine. So don’t bother!
Actually, I change my mind. Send me your picture. I need a new dartboard.
11 August 1938
I got your letter this morning. Your apology is not accepted.
Being shy and an “introvert” is no excuse for saying stupid, careless things.
And now I want to tell you something serious.
Alex, I think you need friends. I think you need even one friend on Bainbridge Island. It is not healthy to be all alone! And I don’t care how okay you think you are!
Your brother Frank is right. You cannot hide yourself away all the time. You cannot be like a turtle retreating deep into his shell, away from everyone, away from the world. Otherwise you will become like Bertha Mason, the crazy woman locked away in the attic in Jane Eyre.
P.S. Where’s your photograph? I need a dartboard!
September 9, 1938
So you want my picture? Sure, no problem. But it’ ll take a while because I’m not rich like you, I don’t have photos lying around that I can just pull out of albums. But in the meantime, I’ve enclosed something else. Something even better. Tada!
An original self-portrait drawn by yours truly.
One day I’ll be famous and my drawings will sell for a million bucks. So yes, You’re welcome for this million-dollar gift: a self-portrait, based on how you see me: a turtle with his head in the clouds.
The convenient thing about this new body of mine: when I visit Paris one day, I won’t have to climb the Eiffel Tower. My long neck will put me at eye level with you on the observation deck.