Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is an amazing debut novel by Thanhha Lai. While I think that you will immediate become engrossed with little Hà's story and the events that bring her to America, the first thing that you will notice is that the book is written as a series of short free verse poems in 10-year-old Hà's journal.

The story itself is compelling. Hà lives in South Vietnam, and tells about her life, her brothers, and her papaya tree through her poems. But when the Communists take control of Saigon, Hà's family is forced to make a tough decision. In spite of all their doubts, they board a military boat and become refugees drifting from one place to another.

After about a month in a refugee camp in Florida, they get sponsored to go to Alabama where one of her brothers will be able to work as a mechanic. Hà and her brothers experience the predictably fickle affections of American school children. They make fun of her for her "flat" face, her "funny" name, her religion, and her accent. But when one brother starts a small class outside their home teaching how to do Jet Lee moves, everyone starts being nice to them so they can be his friend.

Hà and her family have to face the awkwardness of going to a Christian Baptist Church where they neither understand nor believe the faith but are baptized anyway. Some of the neighbors throw eggs at their house and later a brick with a note that the English-speaking brother refused to translate. But another neighbor takes one look at them on her doorstep and immediately gives them hugs! She begins to tutor Hà in English and provides a helpful listening ear when Hà begins to open up about her troubles at school. At the end of the book, the seasons have come around again and it is once more time for the Vietnamese New Year Tet. In spite of all the changes, and Hà's declaration that "No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama", we get the very real sense that things might not be so bad after all.

What I really love about this book is the language. Free verse novels seem to be creeping into style (consider Out of the Dust, written by Karen Hesse about the dust bowl in Oklahoma, which won the Newbery Award in 1998.) Lai paints gorgeous pictures with her words, somehow getting more meaning and beauty out of each little phrase than most authors could get out of an entire book! (perhaps a slight overstatement there...) But truly, this book makes me appreciate language and words. And when you consider that Thanhha Lai moved from Vietnam to Alabama just like Hà and had to spend years learning and correcting her English, this gives great hope for Hà, who is frustrated with English grammar and thinks that "whoever invented English should learn how to spell."

Another charming thing about this book is that though it is not directly educational, we do learn a lot about Vietnam and the experience of trying to assimilate into American life. And these lessons are so skillfully inserted so they never begin to feel preachy. The story is so clearly about the family, learning and growing and loving together wherever they are.

Considering her exquisite use of free verse poetry along with the quality of the story and the characters that make it, I'd be very much surprised if Thanhha Lai did not receive at least one award for this book. And I wouldn't mind staking a bet that "Newbery" would be in the title of one of them. Honestly, you need to read this for yourself and simply savor the flavor of the words.

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