Review: Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Saigon, 1975. Ha is ten, the youngest (and only daughter) in her family. While the war has touched her life — her parents fled North Vietnam years ago; her father has been missing for years — Ha is a happy, loved child, with three older brothers who tease her and a mother who works two jobs.

A family friend helps Ha’s family get a blanket-sized space on one of the Navy ships full of refugees; eventually, the family winds up in Alabama. One year later, it is a different life — new language, new foods, new friends — but it is, once again, Tet, the new year, celebrated with her brothers and mother.

The Good: Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse. I usually think of novels in verse as books with less details, because, well, there are less words; and I look at them as books where the emotions that need to be conveyed are best told in verse. What surprised and impressed me for Inside Out & Back Again was just how much about Ha’s life in Vietnam, at sea, and in Alabama are given: the lotus seeds and rice cakes to celebrate Tet, a brother who dreams of being Bruce Lee, a family of five living on one mat, the frustrations with learning English.

Ha is only ten; a wonderful age. She embraces life and gets frustrated and moves forward. But, because she is ten, and because this is a children’s book, there are things she doesn’t know so she cannot share them with the reader, and the intended reader neither knows or cares about the type of minutiae that an adult reader may expect from such a tale of flight and immigration.

How did the family of five get sponsorship in the United States? Ha shares a few disconnected details that the reader can connect: the engineering student brother accepts a job as a mechanic, the mother says the family is Christian, and suddenly all are in Alabama. Some uncomfortable time at the sponsor’s home (“The wife insists/we keep out of/ her neighbors’ eyes“) and then the family is in its own home (two bedrooms, with help from their sponsor), and mother gets a job in a factory.

Ha relates all this, with just enough details to know that things aren’t easy or simple but with the matter of factness of a child. A book not using verse would have demanded more (how did they get the house, the job, the paperwork, etc.) and what is perfect about Inside Out & Back Again is that more is not needed to convey the story of this year in the life of Ha.

I adored each member of Ha’s family, but the mother — wow. The mother. Knowing that they will have to leave Saigon, she makes arrangements including sewing bags to use for travel. They know no one in America, but believe the family has more opportunities there. When the mother finds out that sponsors prefer Christians, she puts that on their application: “Just like that/ Mother amends our faith,/ saying all beliefs/ are pretty much the same.” Once in Alabama, the family even goes through baptism but when Tet comes around, they keep to their own beliefs. This is a woman who will do what is needed for her children, no matter what. Part of that is the dreams and work ethic she instills in them: the eldest boy is no longer in college, true, but plans to go to night school for his studies. The second son is old enough to work, but she insists he go to school.

Ha and her family meet both prejudice and kindness in Alabama. A nice, subtle aspect of Inside Out & Back Again is Ha’s own preconceptions about things: their sponsor wears a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, so Ha calls him “the cowboy” and believes he must own a horse.

The time frame is one year: it begins with Tet, and ends with Tet, and in that one year Ha brings her journey full circle. The family is together, they celebrate Tet, they look forward to a future. The reader has experienced, with Ha, what it means to leave home and start new, with nothing but two changes of clothing.

Inside Out & Back Again is based on the author’s own experiences as a ten year old. Fiction can be the better avenue to tell this type of story; no worrying about specific dates, times, or places; creating a narrative that is true rather than linear. An interview with the author (at Desirous of Everything) explains that in more detail. While Inside Out & Back Again is complete unto itself, I want to know more about Ha and her brothers and her mother as they make their way in Alabama. Am I the only one hoping this becomes a series that follows Ha through her childhood and teenage years?


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