Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back Again is this year’s “One Book, One Community” selection, and I picked up a copy from my local library while I was there during an author event. The timing was serendipitous: the book was on my TBR list, as I’ve heard it recommended several times (it’s a Newberry Honor Book and National Book Award winner).

The story follows a girl named Ha, who is displaced from her home during the Vietnam War. She is only ten years old, and she is forced to flee on a ship and ends up in Alabama with a family that sponsored 20171014_221838hers. After surviving a dangerous boat ride to escape her unstable country, she is faced with discrimination: most families want to sponsor smaller Vietnamese families, not large ones like hers. And when her sponsor brings the family to his home, his wife snarls, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Add to that, Ha faces bullying from her classmates, with a reference to the famous photograph of the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack (Nick Ut) being one of the only things the students know or understand about Vietnam.

At the same time, the book shows us the emotions she faces as she holds onto her culture despite changing conditions: the motif of her papaya tree, which she had to leave behind, and her brother’s chick, which he had to leave behind, is repeated through the story—for instance, with references to dried papaya strips Ha is given as a gift and American-style fried chicken that the family is given, neither of which compares to the fresh versions of the food they left at home.

For those of you following my blog, this book is the complete opposite of the one I reviewed last week. (I still feel a bit bad about last week’s review, but I had to be honest). Inside Out & Back Again is written in free verse, and each chapter is short enough to read often in less than a minute. It can be read comfortably in 3 short sittings, though it can be tackled in one if desired. This book completely respects the reader’s time, though sometimes that left me craving a bit more detail. (In the bonus material included at the back of the book, the author provides advice about writing poetry, and that includes cutting down any unnecessary words: the syrup without the sap, in her words. She certainly follows her advice.) In some ways, each poem is much like a haiku: fast to read but best digested with slow contemplation, considering the imagery of the poem, the emotions, and how the poem relates to other poems in the tale.

Ha, the protagonist, is only ten, so the words she provides are limited in their depth, though the reader can find hidden depth between the lines, and often the gut-punch comes in what is left unsaid. The ease of reading makes this book appropriate for even elementary school readers, but the ideas interwoven within the text (and the subtext as well) make it applicable for adults as well. In her note at the end of the book, the author asks us, “How much do we know about those around us?” She tells us that much of Ha’s story is based on her own life, and she felt compelled to share her story since there are those whose relatives have endured similar hardships but who now know very little about the details—especially the emotional details—of the journey from Vietnam to elsewhere.

When we hear so much in the news about refugees, books like this are important in helping us to think about the other perspective. I can’t imagine having to uproot myself and hope that I could find a sympathetic family or acquaintance willing to help me find a new life. Yet at the same time, it’s human nature to expect people to assimilate to a certain culture. Even Ha, the spirited narrator, expresses fears that her forward-thinking ways while still at home (wanting to be the first person to touch the floor on a special holiday, for example, even though this honor was reserved for the oldest brother) may have caused her family’s misfortune. The book explores all that comes when change happens—the good, the bad, and the different. This book scratched the surface in helping the reader see what it might be like (though again, more detail would have helped just a bit). The scope of the book includes Ha’s life at home, her exodus via ship, and her new life in America. That’s a lot to pack into about 200 pages of double-spaced, short-lined poetry.

I enjoyed the details. For instance, Ha is very intelligent when she leaves Vietnam. But when she comes to Alabama, she speaks with a heavy accent and has trouble with the nuances of the English language; as a result, many think she is stupid: in one harrowing scene, the class applauds her for doing something a young child could accomplish, making her feel ridiculous. As a teacher, I cringe when I see an English language learner have to learn content and language at once, and so I feel for Ha: only time and practice can help her, and the bullying doesn’t make things any easier.

As a creative writing teacher, I will use this book to model writing concise poetry in free verse, especially poetry whose intended purpose is to evoke emotion while conveying a story. For a reluctant reader, the length is encouraging (since the pages fly by quickly), but the content is deep enough (reading between the lines) that no one should feel bored when reading, even if it is a quick read.

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