11:00 am EST, January 7, 2020

‘This Light Between Us’ book review: An achingly beautiful story of friendship and war

Centered upon two young people, one a Japanese American boy and the other a Jewish French girl, This Light Between Us is a devastatingly beautiful novel about love, loss, and hate during World War II.

When young Alex Maki is assigned a French pen pal named Charlie Levy in 1934, he’s surprised (and a bit disgusted) to learn that she was a girl. But they carry on writing to each other anyway, forming a close trans-Atlantic friendship. The two share their hopes, fears, and dreams with each other, becoming important figures in each other’s lives as they come of age during a time of great turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic.

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As World War II descends on their communities, they rely on each other for comfort and friendship through flurries of letters back and forth. But when the war reaches their personal shores and threatens their ways of life, their friendship and allyship become even more vital to their survival.

This Light Between Us is a moving story that shines a light on the minority World War II perspectives and voices that have been drowned out over the years by those who are louder.

Though I’ve been aware of the Japanese American interment camps for some time now, I never truly realized or was shown the horrors lurking behind their walls until I read This Light Between Us. From the awful ways in which communities treated their Japanese American neighbors in the immediate aftermath of World War II (acts of violence, racial slurs, imposed curfews…) to unceremoniously and unjustly forcing fathers from their homes and away from their families, author Andrew Fukuda goes into great detail so as to paint a realistic picture of what the atmosphere in America was like in 1941.

And if the treatment of Japanese Americans in their own communities was heartbreaking, it has nothing on the horrible conditions of internment camps. As some people in our government separate families and force them into new types of internment camps in this modern day, Fukuda’s This Light Between Us‘s reminder of our past atrocities is more important than ever.

Aspects of history that we (namely straight white men of a certain age) are not proud of rarely make textbooks, museums, or documentaries. The accounts of the oppressed and wronged become even further oppressed in the name of “moving on” and not dwelling. But, as we all know, history is bound to repeat itself if we don’t learn from it.

This Light Between Us‘ depictions of the Manzanar Camp in California is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Never before did I know just how desolate and desperate things were in that camp. By endearing us to Alex Maki and his family, Fukuda makes sure we have a personal stake in their treatment and survival, which really drives home just how horrific the camps were. From the small uninhabitable shacks that the masses were forced to live in to the inhospitable climate to the meager rations that were doled out, the conditions and the treatment of Japanese Americans was far worse than we’ve been exposed to.

Though the events of this novel are fairly dark and depressing, Alex and Charlie are two shining beacons of light and hope. Each of them is facing persecution (many times to the point of violence) by those they considered neighbors and fellow countrymen, and yet they can’t help but have faith in their communities and love their hometowns. Their hope in the face of hate and war is truly something to behold.

Telling this novel through letters and drawings, rather than traditional chapters of alternating perspectives, adds an extra level of compassion and raises the stakes. Alternating chapters of the characters talking about and writing to each other may have connected the two characters, but with the letters, there’s a real sense of intimacy and love that would’ve otherwise been lost.

And it’s that intimacy and love between these two characters that make this novel truly special.

The characters in this novel are exceptionally well-drawn, especially Charlie. While her characterization happens mostly through letters or others’ accounts of her person, she feels just as real and three-dimensional as Alex, our point of view character. She’s quick to anger and impulsive, but deeply caring and self-aware. Many times she describes herself as having fire in her eyes, a trait that’s fully supported by everything we learn about her through her letters. While I won’t spoil Charlie’s fate in this novel, I will say that she’s the beating heart of this story.

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda

Alex, on the other hand, is the forward momentum. As the reader’s point of view character, we experience the injustice and atrocities that he faces through his personal experience. While he may begin the novel as timid and a bit of a wallflower (sometimes to his own detriment), he really comes into his own over the course of the story. Much of it is dictated by his surroundings and his situation (and, by association, the war itself), but his decisions and growth always align with who he is at his core: A compassionate young person who will do anything to help those he cares about.

To invest in the two main characters is to invest in the heart of the novel, and while that hurts at times, it’s so worth it. Their perspectives emphasize the easily-ignored elements of humanity and compassion during World War II and make all of the events that occurred during that time feel like the atrocities they were.

Because it’s previewed on This Light Between Us‘ gorgeous cover, it’s not a spoiler to say that Alex eventually enlists and finds himself fighting in the European theater. You may not believe it before reading this book, but the scenes that take place on the front lines are just as difficult to read as those that take place in Manzanar.

And, again, the World War II service and contributions of Japanese Americans (namely, the insane situations they were put into and fought their way through) isn’t all that widely known, but this novel takes the reader through every painstaking detail and death. The situations presented here would be unbelievable if they weren’t true and historically accurate.

Following a kind-hearted soul like Alex through the European theater is tough. He’s more than capable (as you’ll read), but he’s still very much a bleeding heart. Fukuda expertly weaves Alex’s empathy and sense of patriotism with his newfound sense of duty, transforming this soft young man into an only slightly harder soldier who has experienced things no person ever should. But he never loses who he is at his core.

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda is a devastatingly beautiful and incredibly rich novel that captivated me from the moment I cracked it open. From its nuanced and lovable characters to the detailed depictions of internment camps and battlefields, it’s impossible to put this novel down once you’ve started it.

Not only that, but it’s an important story that deserves to be told because, frankly, it’s one that few have cared enough to pay attention to and not drown out with stories of “patriotism” and heroism. This Light Between Us provides a fascinating view of the war from a couple of perspectives that aren’t often heard but are of great importance.

Both heartbreaking and hopeful, This Light Between Us is a gorgeous and impressive new installment in the genre of World War II historical fiction. It’s not to be missed.

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or Indiebound. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” shelf!

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