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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