Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
262 pages, hardcover.
Chosen from my Concenter List; has a beautiful cover and intriguing title.
No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.
For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next. ~dust jacket
Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse ala Margarita Engle or Sharon Creech; she tells the story in a series of poems. To be honest, I’d hoped to be able to just link other blogger’s reviews of this one. None of those I follow have reviewed this though, so I will do my best.
[Much of my reluctance in reviewing novels in verse is due to the format. While I appreciate novels in verse, I am rarely sure what to do with them. I try to read parts out loud (if not all). I put more consideration into the structure. I love poetry and the short story for the weight they can carry in their careful selection of word and image. And I would love to read a review speaking to the success of Thannha Lai’s verse in the novel. More I would love to write one with something more filling than a shrug as a gut response.]
For Inside Out & Back Again, I took Kathi Appelt’s (of The Underneath) advice as found on the back cover, only I tried to do the three steps in one:
Open this book, read it slowly to savor the delicious language. Before closing it, go back to the beginning, this time to let the story of 10-year-old HÀ and the year she escaped from South Vietnam, 1975, leaving behind the world she knew and loved, sink in. Don’t close the covers yet. Read it again to notice how perfect the thin line of the prose itself mirrors the thin line that HÀ walks during that year. This a book that asks the reader to be careful, to pay attention, to sigh at the end.
“…savor the delicious language…”
Singularly delicious images can be found throughout, but I wasn’t tantalized into lingering over every poem, and with some, only parts. Perhaps I was too swept up in the spare and quick movement of the novel as a whole. It is good to mind Appelt’s direction, because the 262 pages maintain a steady forward motion.
Lai minds her audience. The vocabulary and imagery is highly accessible to middle-graders. The reader needn’t have any real knowledge of South Vietnam 1975, nor Alabama 1975 either. But I think the story more moving if one does. It makes the neighbor’s friendship all that more significant; it creates a greater tension in the scenes of South Vietnam and the family’s escape. However, what our narrator sees is enough for anyone just the same. Alabama is so completely foreign, so culturally disconnected she finds her self to be foreign, disconnected; she become so terribly unfamiliar to herself. HÀ and her family lose a great deal in their leaving South Vietnam and Lai wouldn’t have anyone doubting it.
[This is a great novel to either springboard or pair with a History lesson on the Vietnam War, and is an excellent excuse to explore a new culture.]
The greater lyricism is found in the collection of the verses.
“…notice how perfect the thin line of the prose…”
Inside Out & Back Again begins and ends with Tết, the first year of the lunar calendar, a day in which everyone ages (matures) a year despite their birth date. Each titled verse has a date, marking the progression of the year. HÀ’s journey is also told in 4 parts: Saigon, At Sea, Alabama, and From Now On. There is an echoing in the first and third, and second and fourth parts: the friend she has/the ones she meets; her bullying/bullying her; her knowledge/her ignorance… As the novel is so aptly titled, the girl you meet at the beginning has been turned inside out, and by the end, she is put more to rights, reclaiming some sense of equilibrium.
We are given a strong sense of who HÀ is in South Vietnam, which makes the changes she must endure all the more compelling. She is a girl like any other 10 year old girl—before. And what matters to her in the transition is the concern of any other girl (or boy) near in age. And truly, much of her concerns are not singular to her age.
Lai provides important insight into an immigrant’s struggle. It is a valuable addition that the family in this case is from a place with which their new home is in “conflict.”
Readers are asked to think about the everyday knowledge they take for granted, from language to appropriate wardrobe. You join Ha and her family in appreciating hurtles they encounter, especially the inconsistencies in grammar—middle-graders should especially relate to this. Things are lost in translation, some things must just be accepted, some problems are universal.
“…let the story sink in…”
HÀ and family teeter along the thin line Appelt mentions, each have their own struggles and decisions to make. Much can be deciphered from verse but some readers may find frustration with the inferences rather than paragraphs (in prose) of internal dialog, extensive observation, and landscaping. The sparseness may feel like a nail scratch rather than a deeply felt slice. Emotions invoked may depend on the Reader, but Inside Out & Back Again is worth the read for its informative nature, its perspective that doesn’t feel like a heavy handed lesson on tolerance.
I think the young reader (and older) will be intrigued by the fact that Thanhha Lai draws from her own experiences; that HÀ’s experiences truly happen, then and now. Readers all too intimately familiar with stories like these will likely find comfort in the strength and determination of the cast, and the hopefulness wrought even amidst the grieving. Lai doesn’t cheapen the experience by tinting everything in rainbows or roses.
Other recommended reads on Immigrant experiences: Illegal by Bettina Restrepo, The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.
Margarita Engle has fantastic examples of brilliantly rendered novels in verse. I am seeing more and more of these on the shelves. I would like to learn a better review approach to these, and a useful lexicon to draw from…this may mean I brush up on my skills in writing about poetry, which is terribly rusty.