This is a review I’d originally written in January of 2016. I wanted to post it here because this happens to be one of my favorite books.
Dathan Auerbach created one of the most disturbing novels I think I will ever read with Penpal.
I don’t know that I will be able to shake the feeling left behind from reading this book for a while to come.
Perhaps some of the feeling of being unsettled is due to the fact that I relate a great deal to the protagonist laying out the story. As a child I had few friends, when I had any, and a great deal of that youth was spent wandering aimlessly through the woods here in the Black Hills of South Dakota…either by myself or with one or another of the small number of friends I was somehow fortunate enough to make. Much like the child in Penpal, I filled the forest with sinister things in my own imagination, especially in the darkness as night approached. Needless to say, I felt a sort of kinship with the young boy in this book, and that made the events of the narrative that much more difficult to shake.
Even without that sort of association, the story would be a spooky one though for anyone, I think.
During Kindergarten, the boy’s class has a project. They were to write a brief letter to accompany a helium-filled balloon requesting a letter and a photo. As the letters begin coming back as response, our protagonist finally receives a single Polaroid photo without any explanation. More letters come in and are ultimately ignored until months later when it is discovered that he is in many of the pictures that his new penpal is sending…and that is really just the beginning.
As a parent and as a former boy who spent his days and nights exploring the woods near home, this is without a doubt one of the most uncomfortable books I have had the pleasure of reading. I am torn between hoping that Dathan Auerbach has more books to come and half-heartedly wanting him to call it quits after a novel that would be challenging to top.