fiction favorites…Inside Out & Back Again

inside out and back again cover imageInside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

One Mat Each

We climb on
and claim a space
of two straw mats
under the deck,
enough for us five
to lie side by side.

By sunset our space
is one straw mat,
enough for us five
to huddle together.

Bodies cram
every centimeter
below deck,
then every centimeter
on deck.

Everyone knows the ship
could sink,
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.

But no one
is heartless enough
to say
because what if
they had been
before their turn?

PapayaAt the outset of 1975, Kim Hà is a ten-year-old girl living in Saigon, South Vietnam.  A year later, she finds herself in Alabama, a refugee of the war.  The tumultuous events of that year feel very much as though everything she knows has been turned inside out and upside down, and slowly, in new, foreign ways,  put back together again.

As the story begins, Hà’s  life is a sweet-and-sour mix.  The sweetness stems from many familiar parts of life — family, home, bougainvillea vines flaming with color, and a young papaya tree ready to yield its first luscious fruit.  The sour is largely due to her missing father.  Nine years before, when she was not yet one, heSaigon 1975 from the Tampa Bay Times website left on a navy assignment, was captured by the Communists, and has never been heard from again.

Yet in this Year of the Cat, many other forboding fingers are reaching into Hà’s life.  Saigon is crumbling. Finally, awfully, there is nothing to do but flee.   Hà, her mother, and brothers encounter intense dangers, sorrows, and miseries in their escape to Guam, their life in a refugee tent camp there, and their journey to America.

America has its sweet and sour, too, Hà discovers — a kind host who looks like a cowboy, but that monstrously difficult English language with it’s funny sounds and rules; showers in the bathroom that feel like a massage of rain, but teasing and laughter at school.  Loneliness, meanness; generosity, kindness.  Always the spectre of her father, wondering, wishing, hoping he were alive and caring for them.  Somehow, Hà must learn to embrace this new configuration of life.

Vietnam Tet HolidayThanhha Lai has written her beautiful, poignant novel in the form of free verse.  It is stunning how much emotion and detail and story she packs into her limited words, yet it’s highly accessible to middle-grade readers.   This is a semi-autobiographical novel, as Lai herself fled Vietnam for Alabama at age ten, with a father missing in action.  She draws from her experiences to skillfully bring us into the world of a young refugee girl, a place where it is important for us and our children to sit and learn.

Winner of a Newbery Honor last year, I’m recommending this for ages 9 or 10 and up.  It will appeal primarily to girls with the entire story from Hà’s point of view.  For a refugee story featuring a male protagonist, you might try Home of the Brave, which I reviewed here.

Here’s the Amazon link:  Inside Out and Back Again