Book review: Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

A young girl escapes her homeland of Vietnam on a boat and journeys to an awesome and frightening place: America.

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, Harper, 272 pp.

In 1975 Saigon, young Ha attends school, fights with her older brothers, and watches her papaya tree grow. Her life is ordinary, with notable exceptions. Her father, in the Vietnamese navy, has been missing in action for most of Ha’s 10 years. Her best friend has moved away quite suddenly. Soldiers patrol the streets of Saigon.

The war in Vietnam is changing the way she, her mother, and her three brothers live. It is, quite literally, tearing apart their world.

Saigon is the only home Ha has ever known. The papaya tree growing from the seeds she tossed from her window is about to bear fruit. But the Communists are coming closer, the Americans have mostly left, and bombs can be heard outside the city. Schools close and schoolmates disappear. Food becomes scarce. The family must leave – now.

A friend of Ha’s father alerts them to an opportunity for escape before the government collapses. Families of soldiers will be allowed on the first boats that steal away for Thailand or perhaps to be rescued at sea.

Leaving behind their life in Vietnam – the photographs, the hammock, the “jasmine in front of every window” and bougainvillea blooming the same colors as her house – Ha’s family flees from the war on a crowded ship.

On the April day that they abandon their home, Saigon falls to the Communists.

As experienced by a 10-year-old, the conditions on the boat delivering the family to freedom are described vividly, yet simply. Ha has never accepted rules without questioning. She’s not like other girls who bend like bamboo whichever way they are told. Even during harsh days at sea with small rations of food and water, makeshift bathrooms, and seasickness, Ha is rarely complacent.

Once rescued, the family must decide where to go. Paris, where a cousin lives? Canada, the home of their friend? Ha’s mother chooses America for its opportunities.

Soon they are more or less settled in their new home. Ha knows she should appreciate the cobbled-together donations from her Alabama sponsors, but she struggles to accept the strange new situation: “Even at our poorest we always had beautiful furniture and matching dishes. Mother says be grateful. I’m trying.”

Ha narrates these events without wallowing in misery. She’s a survivor, a girl who does not like surprises, yet she must learn a new language where even her teacher’s name, filled with so many “s” sounds, must be hissed. She makes a friend, tries new food. Day by day, Ha begins to navigate the unfamiliar.

In this remarkably told story for ages 9-12, Ha’s family reminds us of people we know, of families whose brothers irritate and whose mothers struggle and push their children to succeed. The beauty of this debut novel is that it’s the exotic made familiar.

Thanhha Lai’s own memories of fleeing Saigon for Alabama inspired the emotional story. Although written for young readers, the spare free verse of "Inside Out and Back Again" will appeal to a much larger audience.

The allure of the language and the simple telling of a harrowing experience pulls readers into a survival story it seems they have never heard before. A young girl escapes her homeland on a boat, journeying to a place filled with awesome and frightening experiences.

Then we realize, it’s the classic immigration tale, powerfully and beautifully shared by an authentic narrator who lived the story.

Augusta Scattergood is a Monitor contributor.

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