Finished Reading: This Light Between Us
by Andrew Fukuda
My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction
As a Japanese American during WWII, teenage Alex Maki’s life begins to deteriorate until his family is sent to a detainment camp. Up to and during this time, he is pen pals with a Jewish girl in France, who is seeing the growing persecution of Jews around her. This friendship is his one bright spot in an otherwise scary, unpleasant time. They share their hopes, dreams, fears, and ideas about acceptance vs. revolt through their many letters back and forth. As the war rages on, both of their lives change in ways they can’t imagine, and their strong friendship might not be enough to keep hope alive.
This book was incredible in some ways, and problematic in others. I really liked the history that was presented in this book, as well as the relationships. However, I had a difficult time with the style of writing and with the pacing.
I’ll start with what I liked, which is plenty. I loved the juxtaposition of the two teenage pen pals, who most readers will understand going in are being set up for intensely difficult times ahead. While I have seen and read many books about the Jewish side of this, the Japanese American side was a fresh topic for me. It’s easy to see the Nazis as evil because of what they did, but it’s also easy to forget that America put their own citizens into camps (though not heinous as the Nazi camps, as is clearly recognized in this book.
There was a pivotal scene not far from the end that I was curious enough about to look up and found that it was historically accurate, which was really neat to me. And the author’s notes at the end said it was one of 2 sources of inspiration for this book! Overall, I appreciated the history in this book.
I think my favorite parts of the book were the letters between Alex and his pen pal Charley. I would have been okay if more of the story had been told through those letters. I also liked the way a few other relationships developed throughout the story, particularly those between Alex and his brother Frank, and Alex and Mutt. Thinking of these, though, make me realize how light the book is on deep characters. Overall, those 4 are the only characters with any real depth, and none of them are particularly deep, besides maybe Alex and his brother.
This might be largely related to one of my biggest dislikes with the book. The story, which is presented as a personal narrative, has some strange inconsistencies in writing style. It fluctuates often between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient (especially in the last third), which can at times make me feel like I have mental whiplash. Some of these sections easily could have been shown from the limited POV of Alex, rather than the broad POV of everyone involved. The story is also written in present tense, which, to me, is a strange choice for the omniscient POV. This caused the book to not flow as well as it could have.
Similarly, during the omniscient sections, there’s a lot of telling, instead of showing. I’m really not a big stickler for the “show, don’t tell” adage, but even I have my limits. I also would have preferred some translation for the French in some parts. This is a small gripe, because it didn’t come up often, and most of the time I could guess what was being said from context. But during a pivotal scene near the end, I had to use Google to translate some phrases to make sure I knew what was being said, and I’d rather not have to leave the book in a moment like that. (There was also something said in German that the reader is led to believe was some kind of German curse, and it’s not translated or even hinted at otherwise. I know enough German to know it was not a German curse, and was really quite emotional.)
So, overall, I did enjoy the book. It wasn’t a favorite, but I also think that most of what bothered me was more personal preference than normal. I think most people will not be bothered by the writing style, especially. It is listed as YA, but I’m not sure how much it works for that crowd. Though I will say that the dialog at times is pretty immature, so that might work out well (it’s also a little too modern, in my opinion, but I’m not expert). If you’re a fan of historical fiction, especially related to WWII, you will probably like it.
If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!