Book Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai


Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Debut author Lai has created a verse novel of fleeing Saigon for the United States.  The narrator is ten-year-old Ha, who speaks of the beauty of Vietnam, its culture and their lives there.  Her father was captured years ago in the war, so she lives with her mother and three older brothers.  Her mother has a good job, but when the prices begin to rise because of the war, the family can barely survive.  They are given a chance to flee Saigon by ship though when they do, they almost starve because their rescue by the Americans is delayed.  Ha describes her culture shock when they do arrive in Alabama as a sponsored family.   All is different from the taste of the food to the quiet of the neighborhood to the language.   Many of her classmates are cruel to her, but she does meet nice Americans who help her learn the language and who are willing to learn about Vietnamese culture as well.

Lai’s verse is precision, written tightly and beautifully, it changes mood from one poem to the next.  Some are sliver thin and crack like a whip.  Others are sinewy and strong, ropes that bind and connect.  Still others are emotions that unite us all, tying us closely to the story.  Lai herself also immigrated from Vietnam at the end of the war to Alabama.  Her book speaks to the personal journey that she had in its depth of feeling.

Ha is a character whom readers will immediately connect with and understand.  She is written in a universal way, even as she describes her homeland and evokes scenes that many readers will not have seen or experienced.  In the descriptions of Ha’s family, Lai creates characters who are vivid and profound.  One of my favorite passages is early in the novel where the family is deciding to leave Saigon.  Ha’s mother is described on page 54:

Who can go against

a mother

who has become gaunt like bark

from raising four children alone.

This a book that is so beautifully written.  It captures the journey both physically and emotionally of refugees to our country.  It is breathtaking and strong.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

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