Posts Tagged ‘Alabama’

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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The Story of Rosa Parks

by Patricia A. Pingry; ill. by Steven Walker

Candy Cane Press, 2007

26 pages

In the late 1980s, my parents moved our family from a suburb of Los Angeles to a small town in the American South–and the color of my life changed overnight.

From my earliest memories, I had played, worshiped, eaten, and shopped with people of every race imaginable.  The mix of languages, cultures, and ideas that had swirled through my life had invigorated me, educated me, inspired me.

But now, suddenly, everyone was white.  And many of my new classmates, it turned out, liked that just fine.  In my first year of gracious Southern living, I probably heard more racial slurs than in my entire pre-Southern life.

It didn’t take me long to start answering the slurs with challenges and questions, and my peers’ responses taught me something I’d never realized before: bigotry is born of ignorance, and it starts at home.

The corollary is a little more hopeful: open-heartedness is born of education and personal experience, and those, too, start at home.

For my family, an integrated bookshelf is a key way to put those lessons into practice. Books are a major part of our everyday life, so we seek out stories from other cultures, books about other countries, books with illustrations that depict people of color with beauty and dignity.

Patricia Pingry’s board book The Story of Rosa Parks was one of my daughter’s first such books. Less than 200 words long, it’s a beautifully succinct account of Rosa’s early life, her role in the Montgomery bus boycott, and the boycott’s impact on our nation.  Clear, folksy illustrations fill 3/4 of each double-page spread, so even infants are engaged.

My favorite part of the book is the last page.  “Rosa, and America, had won.  Thank you, Rosa, for your courage,” the text says.  The accompanying painting depicts a racially diverse group of today’s children, talking happily and energetically together as they ride a bus.

I like the message this sends to my daughter: “You win because our laws no longer forbid real association across color lines.  Your life will be richer if you open your heart to people who don’t look like you.”

I don’t think she needs me to spell it out for her, though.  The first time I read the book to her, when she was about 2 years old, she stopped me when we got to the part about the boycott.

“Wait, Mummy.  Why couldn’t Rosa sit where she wanted?” she asked (she was a very articulate 2-year-old).

I thought for a minute before answering.  “Well, in Rosa’s time, there were a lot of people who didn’t understand that God loves everyone the same, no matter what color your skin is.  They thought they were better just because their skin was light, and they made a lot of laws to keep people with dark skin from doing certain things.  They wanted to make life harder for people with dark skin and keep them in a lower place.”

“But that makes no sense!  Those people were naughty!  They should have let Rosa sit where she wanted!”

She called it what it was and didn’t hesitate to speak out.  She was obviously inspired, and her 2-year-old passion inspired me.

How do you teach your children or students to have open hearts?  How do they inspire you to do the same?

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