Title: Inside Out and Back Again
Author: Thanhha Lai
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2011
Audience: Ages 8 and up
Summary: Ten-year-old Ha, her mother and three older brothers flee Saigon as it is falling to the Communists in 1975. Ha leaves behind her papaya tree, her friends, her school, the markets and celebrations that have been her life. The family leaves not knowing whether their father, captured nine years earlier by the Viet Cong, is still alive. The vessel that carries them away is crowded; food and water are limited and escape is uncertain. They are picked up by an American ship and taken to Guam, then to Florida. They languish there while other families are sponsored until Ha’s mother puts “Christian” on her papers. A man from Alabama whom Ha calls “the Cowboy” agrees to sponsor the entire family. Ha’s mother goes to work in a sewing factory, her older brother as a garage mechanic. Ha and the other two brothers must face the misery of an Alabama school, having to learn a strange language and being compelled to repeat a grade. Children are especially cruel to Ha until she is befriended by two classmates. “The Cowboy” suggests that life will be easier if they will be baptized and the entire family goes through the ritual in a Baptist church. A neighbor and former school teacher whose son was killed in Viet Nam tutors Ha as her life continues to improve. Ha’s family must finally accept the reality that her father will not come back. The novel begins and ends on the New Year, Tet.
Literary elements at work in the story: This poignant, powerful account of war, dislocation, and hope is told in blank verse and in present tense. Each word counts in the short phrases evoking vivid pictures and intense emotions while avoiding the lengthy descriptions that could have swamped the story. Ha’s clear-eyed, honest account is full of humor as well as pain. Her comments about the English language are sharp and funny. Inside Out and Back Again is based on the author’s own experience. The book was a 2012 National Book Award winner and a Newbery Honor Book.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Ha chafes under the limitation placed on girls.(A brother’s foot must touch the ground first on Tet because only male feet bring luck.) This idea is belied by the strength and courage of the mother. The prejudice the Vietnamese family faces in Alabama makes for a painful year and some dishonest compromises.
Theological Conversation Partners: This novel celebrates family and the resilience of the human spirit. Ha’s family is Buddhist and it is evident that the faith is important to them as they face a new life and their father’s death. The book tells little about Buddhism but does show the faith in practice. If discussion of Buddhism takes place the purpose will not be to compare it with the Christian faith, a task requiring a breadth of knowledge that 8-year–olds do not have. There is a danger of feeling superior because “our faith is best.” In the USA and in Alabama being a Christian is a decided advantage. Older children may ponder how Christians use power when people of another faith choose baptism because it will help them be accepted. Is this what Christ means by “making disciples.?” The year 2011 numbered 4 ½ million refugees displaced from their homes. Thanhha Lai dedicates her book to the millions of refugees in the world with the words “May you find a home.” This book gives children a window on this tragedy and helps them experience what being a refugee means. It could lead to a discussion of where the Christian’s true home is. Scripture gives clear instructions about how we are to treat strangers: Matt. 25:34-40; Romans 12:13
Faith Talk Questions:
- Find Viet Nam on the map. What facts do you know about it? Have you heard or learned about our military engagement in Viet Nam?
- What things did Ha love about her country?
- What did you learn about Tet and the importance of its celebration?
- Do you know or does your family know a Buddhist? Do you know anything about what they believe and practice? How could you find out?
- Have you had a student from another country in your class at school. How did you welcome him/her?
- Ha’s mother takes action and makes important decisions for the family. What are some of these? Is she a good mother?
- Ha’s family has a ceremony when they accept that the father is dead. How do they honor and remember him?
- Mother puts “Christian” on the papers she fills out in the refugee camp. Why did she do this? She says, “all beliefs are pretty much the same.” Do you agree?
- The family is baptized to help them be accepted in the community? What does baptism mean? Did the family understand it? Did the church understand it? Was it a happy experience for Ha’s family?
- Fellow classmates call Ha “Pancake face.” She is angry and upset. How does her mother help her calm down?
- Ha is disappointed with the dried papaya that Mrs. Washington gives her for Christmas and throws it in the trash. Her mother tells her to learn to compromise? Is that good advice? How does the sound of a gong help Ha?
- Think about having to take only one small suit case and leaving your home tomorrow. What would you take? What is most important?
- Many churches sponsored families from Viet Nam. Did your church or do you know of such a church? Why did churches do this?
This review was written by regular contributor Virginia Thomas.
Inside Out and Back Again by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.