Saturday, December 17, 2011
Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
In the recent National Book Award winning Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai chronicles her family's experience of immigrating to the United States from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is told in verse and in present tense from the perspective of Hà, a ten-year old girl. The story begins on Feb. 11, the first day of the lunar new year, Tet, the year of the Cat, when food and work are becoming scarce and the family begins to consider leaving their home country. The story continues through their escape on a rickety ship where they are trapped for over a month with little food and water before being rescued. Eventually they relocate to the United States, finding a sponsor and a new beginning in Alabama. Here Hà struggles to learn English and is taunted by her classmates for being different and poor. At one point she understandably writes in her diary "At times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama."
As I read this sparse but delightful book I surprised myself by realizing how little I'd ever thought about the initial experiences that immigrant families have to endure as they begin the assimilation process into a new culture. The nuances of the English language are difficult for native-born speakers, imagine the difficulties of learning it in a crash-course in a 4th grade classroom. Also imagine what it would be like to be forced to eat a completely different diet, wear different clothes, and practice a foreign religion. If you can, then you will understand the struggles that Hà and her family experienced the first few months in the United States.
The library categorizes this as a "Junior" book, but I would say that it works for anyone age 9 and up, all the way to adults. I am glad that I read this book, as it opened my eyes and helped me see life from a different perspective. The 2011 National Book Award selection committee hit a home run when they selected Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. It deserves the award and I challenge all of you to read it.