Penpal Book Analysis Essay

In a suburban Pennsylvania classroom in 1997, a life-altering moment: Caitlin Alifirenka, “a typical 12-year-old American girl,” more interested in what she “should wear to school” than what she “might learn there,” chooses a pen pal from Zimbabwe. Caitlin has never heard of Zimbabwe, but the name, “exotic, and difficult to pronounce,” intrigues her.

The pen pal she’s matched with is a studious, cheerful, bright 14-year-old boy named Martin Ganda. Admonished by his mother that “school is your only hope,” he has made it his goal always to be No. 1 in his class so he can earn a scholarship for college. He and his friends “all knew and loved America, . . . the land of Coca-Cola and the W.W.F.,” and Caitlin’s first letter, bubbly, effusive, quintessentially American in its references to roller skating and bowling, pizza and the Backstreet Boys, enchants him. She, in turn, is charmed by his exuberance and integrity, and likens his letter to “a winning lottery ticket.”

But while Caitlin enjoys a comfortable middle-class life, Martin’s family is desperately poor; they live in one of Zimbabwe’s worst slums and share one room with another family, a mattress their only furniture. It becomes hard for Martin to reciprocate Caitlin’s friendly gestures. A photograph is prohibitively expensive. He has to carry luggage for tips simply to keep up their correspondence. So he makes “the only promise that I knew I could keep: that I would always write back, no matter what.”

“I Will Always Write Back” is Caitlin and Martin’s dual pen-pal autobiography, told in their alternating voices. Written with Liz Welch, it spans the six years from their first exchange of letters to Martin’s arrival on United States soil, where he will study at Villanova on a full scholarship secured for him by Caitlin’s indefatigable, big-hearted mother, and go on to earn an M.B.A. from Duke University.

Initially, Martin decides “to keep it light”; he doesn’t want to “trouble Caitlin with my life worries or scare her off.” But as things worsen for his family after his father loses his menial job and Caitlin begins to worry about why he hasn’t written her, he decides to tell her the truth. Even paper is too expensive, so he has to write his letter on a discarded ice-cream bar wrapper. Seeing the wrapper and hearing that Martin has had to leave school because his family can’t pay the fees, Caitlin sends him $20 she earned babysitting.

One of the story’s most important messages is how small contributions can have a huge impact. The dollar Caitlin sends pays for “enough groceries for two weeks,” while that $20 is “more money than my father made in several months,” Martin writes, and enables him to return to school. Medicine from Caitlin’s grandmother’s bathroom saves Martin’s mother ’s life when she’s stricken with malaria.

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AuthorDathan Auerbach
CountryUnited States
GenreFiction, horror
Media typePrint, e-book
Pages252 pages

Penpal is a 2012 self-published horror/thriller novel and the debut novel of the American author Dathan Auerbach. The work was first published in paperback on July 11, 2012 through 1000Vultures and is based on a series of popular creepypasta stories that Auerbach posted to Reddit.[1] The book follows an unnamed protagonist that finds himself the focus of an obsessed stalker who tracks him throughout his childhood.

Film rights to Penpal were optioned by producer Rich Middlemas in 2012.[2]


Penpal is told via a series of non-linear recollections by an anonymous narrator trying to make sense of mysterious events that happened to him during his childhood, the truth of which was kept from him by his mother all his life;

As a young boy entering kindergarten, the narrator befriends another student named Josh, and the two become very close. The narrator mentions that the school he attended was a school that had children "grow" using groups, such as Group Sky, Group Sea, Group Community, etc. One day, their class conducts a penpal experiment, in which the children tie a letter to a balloon and send it off. Most of the children receive a letter back, but the narrator does not until the very end of the year, when polaroids are mailed to him. He also reveals that Josh had the second highest number of photos in the entire class. By the time he gets his photos, though, he goes home with 50. Eventually he realizes all of the photos feature him and he shows his mother who, at the same moment, opens a letter containing a photo of her son and Josh playing in the woods behind the house just the day before. She becomes distraught and calls the police. Some time later, the narrator awakes in the middle of the woods late in the night. He can't understand how he got there since his feet are clean and unharmed. He makes his way home to find that his mom and the police had found a note on his bed, supposedly written by him, saying that he wanted to run away. However, the narrator points out that he didn't write it, as his name was misspelled. Alarmed, his mother forces them to swiftly move to a new neighborhood, straining the relationship between the narrator and Josh. Despite this, the narrator's mom and Josh's dad allow the boys to continue seeing each other, although his mother becomes very stern and manic about them never, ever leaving the house after dark.

The narrator and Josh decide to explore the forested area across the lake behind the narrator's house, and map out the area. During this adventure, they meet an old woman with Alzheimer's named Mrs. Maggie, who owns a house near the lake and mistakes the boys for her two sons who moved away. She often tries to invite them into her house, though they refuse each time. Soon, the boys begin to realize they are being watched by an unseen figure in the woods. The narrator runs into Mrs. Maggie and asks to go into her house to dry off. He's surprised when she turns him down, telling him her husband is home despite her husband having died years prior. A few days later, the narrator learns that Mrs. Maggie had been brutally murdered and dismembered by someone who moved into her house. Her house is deemed a hazard zone and labeled for demolition. It's implied Mrs. Maggie was killed by the main antagonist.

A couple of years later, the narrator's cat named Boxes disappears, prompting him and Josh to sneak out to his old house to see if Boxes is hiding there. Knowing Boxes enjoyed hiding in the crawlspace beneath the house, the narrator ventures there only to find a pile of animal carcasses next to an old brown blanket and bowls of cat food. Thinking his mother left them there for Boxes, he continues to search for his cat while talking to Josh over his walkie-talkie. Josh, meanwhile, has gone looking around the house and discovers a room filled with the narrator's clothes and covered with Polaroids of the narrator. Someone enters the house and begins to chase Josh, who escapes with the narrator, but not before the person takes a picture of Josh and he drops his walkie-talkie. After getting home, the narrator hears faint meowing coming from his walkie-talkie, realizing the person in the house abducted Boxes. It is later revealed that it was not his mother that had left the blanket and bowls in the crawlspace.

Josh and the narrator begin seeing each other less and less as the years go by. Eventually, the narrator's 12th birthday comes and he invites Josh to his party, and he accepts. During the party, Josh seems troubled, which results in him leaving early. When the narrator asks what's wrong, Josh says he hasn't been sleeping well and thinks he's sleepwalking. Before leaving, he apologizes for not bringing the narrator a gift, and tells him he has an idea for a gift for his next birthday. The narrator notes that this was the last time he ever saw Josh.

Some years later, the narrator is now a teenager and has made some new friends. They go to an old movie theater, where the narrator runs into Veronica, Josh's older sister whom the narrator had a crush on. They begin talking and become close, although she is reluctant to answer any questions regarding Josh. He invites her to go to the movie next Saturday night with him and she answers vaguely. A week later, the narrator is walking back to the theater when he notices that a car with a cracked rear window is following him. He meets Veronica at the theater and they watch the movie while he thinks about ways to kiss her. They end up staying late, walking around the parking lot. Eventually, her car is the only car left in the lot. The narrator turns the corner of the building to pee and leaves Veronica by her car. Suddenly, he hears the screeching of tires and a crash. The narrator runs back to the lot and sees a suspicious-looking car with a cracked window driving away. He realizes Veronica has been run over and is severely injured. She gets admitted to a hospital, where she reveals to the narrator that Josh had run away from home years ago. There was a note left on Josh's pillow, in the same fashion as when the narrator woke up in the woods when he was younger. The narrator begins a texting relationship with Veronica, with her saying at one point, "I love you." They agree to meet up at a movie theater after she says she has gotten out of the hospital, but she doesn't show. A man takes the seat the narrator had saved for her next to him. After the movie, he receives a text saying, "See you again, soon." The narrator's mother then reveals to him that Veronica died weeks ago, and that her phone was missing from her belongings.

Meanwhile, Josh's mother slowly loses her sanity. One day, a man approaches Josh's dad and offers him $100 to fill in some holes that children had dug up in his yard, which Josh's dad accepts. A month later, he finds an area that refuses to remain level, and after excavating with a shovel, unearths a large box.

The narrator's mother is contacted by Josh's dad, screaming for her to come to the area. When she arrives, he looks into the hole. Lying there is a coffin, and inside the coffin is the dead body of Josh, along with the body of a large man who appears to be holding him tightly. Upon removing the man's body, the narrator's mom is horrified when she realizes they had been alive and Josh must have bitten the man's neck in an attempt to get free and although the man had died, Josh couldn't move him and eventually died also. Josh's dad realizes it's the same man who paid him to fill in the holes. Josh's dad unknowingly buried them. Josh's dad recounts of how a man gave him a contract to bury over holes in the woods by the old house. Josh's dad finds a bottle of ether in the coffin, a map Josh and the narrator made as kids, as well as a piece of paper with two stick figures from the same time period.

The underlying plot of the story is then understood: When Josh and the narrator were in kindergarten, a stalker picked up the narrator's balloon and became obsessed with the young boy. He began living beneath the narrator's house. One night he crept into the house, subdued the narrator with ether, and carried him out to the woods, eventually leaving him there. This explains why, although the narrator woke up in a field of thorns, he hadn't a scratch on him. The narrator's mother decided to move them to a new house and, on the day of the move, ventured under the house to look for Boxes. When she saw evidence of someone living there, she moved the narrator and herself out in such a rush that they left many of their things behind. Despite the move, she continued to urge her son and Josh never to venture out of the house alone while never explaining why she was so scared. The man then took up residence in the narrator's now empty old house, surrounding himself with the narrator's things. He then caught sight of Josh while he was looking for Boxes in the narrator's old house, taking his picture and becoming obsessed with him due to his physical similarities to the narrator. He kidnapped Josh in the same way he had attempted to kidnap the narrator, at first toying with him by moving him around at night to make him think he was "sleepwalking", before abducting him by bringing him out to the woods, and leaving a falsified note in Josh's house, stating that Josh had run away, and held him captive for two years. The man dyed Josh's hair to be the color of the narrator's, made him wear the narrator's childhood clothes, which he had stolen from the narrator's previous house, and pinned a picture of the young narrator to his shirt. He used Josh to uncover the location of the narrator's new hometown, stalking him at the movie theater, and becoming violently jealous of his romance with Veronica to the point of running her over. After her death, he then stole her phone and began a texting relationship with the narrator, and sat next to him at the movie theater during their "date". He then sedated Josh using ether and asked Josh's dad to unknowingly bury him alive with Josh, dressed as the narrator, in order to be with him forever. Josh managed to bite the man's neck, causing him to bleed out.

In the present day, the adult narrator thanks his mother for finally disclosing this information to him, and hugs her before departing in his car. The narrator confesses he'll never know why the man kidnapped Josh instead of him, but guesses the man simply didn't have the courage to go through with it. The narrator even wonders if Josh was in the car with the man the day he ran Veronica over. As he drives away, he gives a sorrowful monologue, detailing how deeply he misses Josh, even more so now knowing that he is gone forever, and how he almost wishes that he and Josh would've never became friends, if it meant Josh would still be alive. He expresses his guilt, as Josh's family knew nothing of his involvement in any of this. He ends the story astonished at how, as an adult, he now realizes that all the events were interconnected, but feels a sense of dissatisfaction, knowing that this case had been closed for everyone but him for nearly a decade, and that there would be no way to avenge the death of his friend. Despite this, he says he loves Josh to this very day, and cherishes all of the memories he had of them when they were young.


The story line for Penpal is based on a series of stories that Auerbach posted to the subreddit "No Sleep" under the username 1000Vultures.[3][4] Auerbach posted the first story, "Footsteps", to r/nosleep in March 2010, where it received a large positive response.[5] He had initially meant for "Footsteps" to be a standalone story, but Auerbach chose to continue writing more stories following the same protagonist due to reader demand.[5] Each story was narrated by the same protagonist and each one opened with the same format, where the protagonist responded to a question posted by one of the readers.[2] During this time Auerbach also responded to user posts while in character as the protagonist.[2] Auerbach continued to post more stories and eventually chose to expand the Reddit stories into a full length novel.[1]

To finance the book's publication Auerbach chose to raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $15,946.[4] He then published the book under his own imprint, 1000Vultures, after his Reddit username.[1][4]

In an interview with Aurbach, he explained how he came up with the original idea for the short story "Footsteps", which would later be tuned into the full novel "Penpal". He stated that it came from a childhood memory: "My mom denies that this ever happened, but as a kid I distinctly remember waking up on my porch outside, cold and in my underwear. My mom insists that it couldn't have possibly happened, so I guess I'll never know. But I've carried that memory around for years." He also explained how the fear of someone scooping him up in broad daylight and taking him away from his parents was always a prominent worry he had growing up, and one that would constantly manifest itself into his nightmares. He described how these experiences, mixed with the idea that "people can't perfectly remember everything from their childhood," served as "the impetus for 'Footsteps'." From here, his stories were woven together, creating a main character thrust into the very situations that the author feared himself.[6]


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SF Signal rated Penpal at four stars and wrote "Auerbach took something with childish innocence and twisted into a haunting tale of obsession. I look forward watching Auerbach improve with future works that are bound to give me nightmares."[7]

The novel was greatly received by critics as well as fans. Because so many people had followed the individually released stories that Penpal contains for so long on, Dathan was able to open a Kickstarter to raise money to get the book Independently published. Auerbach explains in an interview held by that the reason he believes his novel was so well received from horror fans was because that idea of a stalker hunting you down is such a raw and human fear. Because there is nothing supernatural or fantastical about the situation, it becomes very real and readers are able to sympathize with the main character that much more. He states that "If the initial success of Footsteps had gone unoticed, I probably would not have continued writing the rest of the stories to continue it." [8]


External links[edit]

Original Reddit stories[edit]

  1. Footsteps
  2. Balloons
  3. Boxes
  4. Maps
  5. Screens
  6. Friends

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