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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Inside Out and Back Again

by Thanhha Lai

HarperCollins, 2011

272 pages

The Vietnam War is kind of a nebulous area in my historical understanding. I know something about it–but only from an American perspective (how and why the U.S. got involved, our casualties, protests on the homefront). I know virtually nothing about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese men, women, and children whose homeland was torn apart.

I had that ignorance in mind when I picked up Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, an autobiographical novel-in-verse based on the author’s experiences as a war refugee. I was also interested in what I had heard was the main focus of the book: Lai’s experience adjusting to life in the U.S., specifically Alabama (I’ve written before about the culture shock I experienced when my family moved from Southern California to the South).

Lai changes some details of her story for the novel–for instance, Lai had eight siblings, whereas main character Ha has only three–but the essentials are the same. Ha, a 10-year-old girl whose father has gone missing in the war, flees South Vietnam with her mother and brothers when her home city of Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese army. After a harrowing few weeks on a defecting Vietnamese Navy ship, Ha’s family ends up in a Miami refugee camp. There, the only immigration sponsor who will take them all is an Alabama man Ha calls “Cowboy.”

But the family finds that their trip to Alabama is only the beginning of their struggle to find a home. Their new neighbors, including Cowboy’s wife, are mostly hateful and afraid: people egg their house, and Ha’s new classmates shout racial slurs and threaten violence. With the help of Cowboy and a couple of other friends, however, Ha and her family slowly win over their neighbors and begin to build a satisfying new life for themselves.

Since Ha is the main character, her personal acclimation is at center stage. After Cowboy connects her with an open-minded neighbor and asks her teacher to counter the bullying, Ha discovers that not all her Southern neighbors want her to go away. Those little rays of light, combined with Cowboy’s ongoing kindness and her mother’s monumental strength, give Ha the courage she needs to make a place for herself in her new country.

There’s a reason Lai won both the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for Inside Out and Back Again. This is an incredible story, incredibly told. Lai’s poems are mostly short, always spare, but packed to the hilt with emotion.

So many authors who write about war fall into the trap of trying to create an epic. They lean on the imposing drama of big, sweeping vistas and the agony of thousands. But Lai zeroes in on the details: Ha tapping her toe to the floor at midnight to foil a boys-only New Year tradition, her frustration at being unable to solve an American math problem, the family’s first Christmas dinner.

The result is a reality and immediacy that brings home the weight of Ha’s transition from Vietnam to the U.S., the significance of what she accomplishes over the course of the book. On the surface, it’s not a lot: basically, she makes a couple of friends and learns enough English to get by in school. But the intimacy of Lai’s poems reveals the mammoth struggle behind these simple steps.

That’s what’s inspiring about Inside Out and Back Again: the fact that Ha, at just 10 years old, takes on a fight most adults would shrink from. Thrown into a disorienting situation through no choice of her own, she doesn’t just go down fighting–she refuses to go down, period. She gets her bearings, realizes she can still be her confident, somewhat defiant self, and deliberately chooses to survive.

When I got to the end of the book, I wanted a sequel. I wanted to know how this true-grit girl would handle the rest of what life had to offer her. And, for me, that’s the telltale sign of an inspiring story: one I don’t want to end.

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Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

Scholastic, 1997

227 pages

I first read Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust several years ago (maybe around 2005?) and remembered it as an inspiring book, good fodder for Read Like a Girl. What I didn’t remember is that it’s also one of the rawest, heaviest books I’ve ever read.

If you have family members who came of age during the Depression, you know that it was the kind of event that induces a sort of national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Depression generation is notorious for its reactionary frugality, and many members suffered long-term ill health as a result of Depression-era hardships.

In my family, my grandfather was known for his refusal to throw things away. He fed his hunting dogs off old tin pie plates and used fish heads for fertilizer; when it came to fancy occasions, he wore the same silk trousers and Chelsea boots for more than 60 years.

My grandmother was much the same. She liked to spend money more than my grandfather did, but she never got rid of anything. When she died (of skin cancer caused by her Depression-era work as a fruit-picker), she left behind two sheds full of clothing and household goods dating back to her teen years.

Out of the Dust is a brutally honest book that helps teens and tweens understand why the Depression left such an imprint on survivors. Through the voice of 14-year-old heroine Billie Jo, the book covers this period as a multi-faceted disaster: environmental, familial, economic.

Added to the national suffering is Billie Jo’s private agony. Her family’s Oklahoma wheat farm is on the verge of collapse; a horrifying accident has killed her mother and unborn brother and left Billie Jo badly burned; and her father, who never wanted a daughter in the first place (hence her masculine name), has checked out on her emotionally.

I told you it was raw and heavy. But my memory didn’t fail me completely–it is inspiring, too.

Billie Jo is perceptive, frank, and (most importantly) just hopeful enough. Without succumbing to destructive escapism, she keeps looking over the horizon, telling herself something better is coming, feeding her own hope bit by bit as rain slowly returns to the Dust Bowl.

When her need to find something new becomes unbearable, she has the courage to pursue it–but also to admit that a homecoming is what she really needs. Her initiative (and her absence) jolt her father into really connecting with her for the first time in her life, and through her encouragement he finds a way to heal.

This is a girl who simply won’t be destroyed by one of the most destructive set of circumstances our nation has ever known. She shows today’s girls that really living isn’t about ease, material abundance, or even the love others give you–it’s about being strong, clinging to what matters to you, and loving yourself.

And here’s a little bonus: the text itself is also inspiring. Hesse’s format–a story told through free-verse poems–isn’t just a parlor trick. The language is gritty, spare, and beautiful. Billie Jo’s no-nonsense temperament, tinged by her romantic love of music, comes through in every line.

It’s the perfect introduction to the idea that true art can take unexpected forms, that a writer (or painter, dancer, or actor) doesn’t have to create along the same lines as everyone else. This is the kind of novel that can open girls’ eyes and minds to new creative possibilities.

I’ll leave you with an a little story, to illustrate what I mean. I came into the living room the other day to find my daughter completely absorbed, Out of the Dust open in her lap. Forgetting that she is now a proficient reader who will attempt anything with a cover (especially when there is a child on it), I had left the book within easy reach. When I explained that it’s not appropriate for her now (she’s just six), but will be in a few years, she grudgingly handed it over.

“But, Mummy,” she said, “I love the poems. Can we please find another book with poems like these?”

That, my friends, is an inspired girl.

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Goin’ Someplace Special

by Patricia C. McKissack; ill. Jerry Pinkney

Atheneum, 2001

40 pages

Since the birth of my daughter, I’ve become painfully sensitive to the idea of parenting under hardship.  My heart twists around itself every time I think of families who are living through famine, war, oppression, or crushing poverty.

This sensitivity reaches back into history, too.  I find myself on the verge of tears when I read about 19th-century street “urchins”; I’m devastated by the bareness of post-Holocaust Jewish family trees.

Living in the American South, where the toxic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still seeps to the surface of daily life, I also find myself thinking about black families in the pre-Civil Rights era.  How did they build family unity when they could be sold apart any day?  How did parents fill their children’s hearts with love and confidence when the world was filled (literally) with signs telling them they were inferior?

As hard as it is, I want my daughter to think about these things, too.  I want her to know about the realities and injustices of life so she can better understand the importance of fighting them–and better appreciate the beauty of the people who live with dignity despite them.

Patricia McCissack’s Goin’ Someplace Special is a great way to introduce a young girl to this kind of information, and to the ways people bloom regardless.

This book is the story of young ‘Tricia Ann’s first solo journey to the public library, the only integrated public building in her 1950s Southern town.

She leaves home excited and energetic, but her enthusiasm begins to flag as she encounters reminder after reminder of the race hatred that permeates society at large.

She has to stand in the “Colored” section of the bus when there are empty seats up front.  She can’t sit down to admire the park fountain her grandfather helped to build–the surrounding benches are all marked “Whites Only.”  When a celebrity-watching crowd sweeps her into the lobby of a whites-only hotel, the manager yells at her and kicks her out.

At the same time, however, ‘Tricia Ann meets members of her own race who speak encouragement and empowerment.  A woman on the bus tells her, “Carry yo’self proud.”  A young man on the street admonishes, “Don’t let those signs steal yo’ happiness.”  And just as ‘Tricia Ann is about to give up, an old woman reminds the girl of all the love and strength her grandmother has poured into her.

So she makes it to her destination, where she finally sees a good sign: “Public Library: All Are Welcome.”

My daughter was mesmerized by this book.  She admired ‘Tricia Ann’s bravery, fumed over the “meanies” who mistreated her, and gaped with delight at the “surprise” ending (we’re rather into libraries at our house).

And when she learned that the book draws on the author’s childhood experiences in Nashville, Tennessee (where the public library integrated all its facilities in the late 1950s), she was just plain inspired.

I think it was primarily the idea that a real girl, one not much older than herself, could be brave and persistent enough to do what ‘Tricia Ann does–run the ugly gauntlet of white supremacy and emerge victorious in her own spirit.

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