Tuesday, December 13, 2011
REVIEW: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genre: Historical Fiction/Novel in Verse
Summary: It's 1975 and, as the Vietnam War rages, the fall of Saigon is imminent. Until now, ten-year-old Hà's life has been been somewhat ordinary: she goes to school, fights with her older brothers, plays pranks on her friends. Of course, her father has also been missing in action for nine years and now her friends are beginning to move away from the threat of the Communist invasion. When her mother makes the difficult decision to flee their homeland, the family must leave behind everything familiar. The novel is written in free verse and takes place over the course of a year, beginning on Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, relating Hà's experiences and impressions from her life in Saigon, through the family's escape and difficult boat journey, to the even more difficult transition to life in America.
First off, I usually avoid novels in verse. I am always skeptical that they can deliver the same level of plot detail and character development as a prose novel. Thanhha Lai proved me wrong. There is precisely the right amount of detail in this sparse novel. Hà's world is elegantly and succinctly crafted and the format in no way detracts from the fullness of the story. Hà, her mother, and each of her three brothers emerge as distinct, empathetic characters. There is the scholarly engineering student, Brother Quang, who must take on work as an apprentice mechanic; gentle Brother Khôi, lover of animals; fierce, loyal Brother Vu, obsessed with Bruce Lee; and their mother, a loving woman strong enough to do whatever is needed for her family. Hà herself is eager, perceptive, stubborn, and prone to tempers. She's determined to feel smart again, though quite sure that "Whoever invented English/should be bitten/by a snake."
This is a powerful novel about the immigrant experience, and one to savor slowly. Despite what many will consider weighty subject matter, this is a fairly light read with a good deal of humor. I found myself grinning and laughing out loud more than once at Hà fresh take on American culture, such as her insistence that the "The Cowboy," as she calls her family's Stetson-sporting American sponsor, should have a proper horse and teach her to ride. Inside Out & Back Again is also the perfect novel to give to any middle school student who has been bullied or felt out of place.