Friday, February 7, 2014

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

Title:  Inside Out and Back Again
Author:  Thanhha Lai
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2011
Pages:  272
Genre:  Poetry
Themes:  War, Family, Immigration
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
The story of Ha and her family is told through a series of free verse poems.  The story moves from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war, to Guam, to Alabama, where Ha and her family are sponsored by an American man and his reluctant, cold wife.  Lai does a beautiful job evoking what life in Saigon was like right after the Americans left, creating a sense of foreboding an uncertainty that is unsettling.  Things don't really improve when Ha and her family finally board the ship for is overcrowded, with no privacy and very little food.  When they finally reach the safety of the American naval base, their relief is quickly replaced by more uncertainty about their future.  Only families that are sponsored by an American are allowed to relocate in the US, and Ha's family has to wait until someone comes forward.

Ha's family reacts in different ways to their leaving Vietnam.  One brother is angry and hostile towards the move, one is looking forward to going to living in Bruce Lee's homeland.  One takes a very Zen approach, not really appearing to care.  Ha's biggest worry, one shared with her mother, is that their father, who has been missing in action for three years, will never be able to find them if he tries to come home.  But Lai makes it pretty obvious that the family really had no choice-if they wanted to survive, and not just survive but have a chance to thrive, they had to leave Vietnam.

Lai also does not shy away from showing us just how ugly the American attitude was towards Vietnamese refugees was in the weeks and months following America's exit from Southeast Asia.  People in the small town where Ha and her family land were indifferent and best, and downright mean at worst.  Ha's frustration over feeling dumb in American schools is palpable, and for good reason.  Her inability to speak English gets in the way of even the most basic human transactions, and as a result people can take advantage of her and her family.  Luckily one of her brother's speaks English, and the family is able to communicate their basic needs to their sponsor, but that doesn't help Ha make friends, or her mother find work.  Even when people think they are being kind, Ha and her family have such a different perspective on life that they don't always take the gestures in the way people intend.  Fortunately for Ha, their sponsor introduces them to a former teacher who tutors Ha in English, despite the fact that her son was killed in Vietnam.  This book provides a great opportunity to teach poetry as a narrative form, and there are lots of chances for cross-curricular connections in social studies.

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