Inside Out & Back Again/Thanhha Lai: Reflections

Monday, April 30, 2012

One of the great sorrows of my past many months has been the paucity of books I've had the time to read.  Life just isn't right without a book in one's hand.  And my blog is hollow when not celebrating the work of others.

How happy I was this weekend, then, to settle in with Inside Out & Back Again, the 2011 National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature. It's, well:  it's perfect.  A story told as a child truly sees. A collection of free-verse poems that set the small things (the taste of papaya) against the big things (the consequences of an abrupt flight from home) and makes us feel, deeply, what it is to lose everything that defines you, and what it is to start all over again.

Like Thanhha Lai once was herself, Ha, the story's narrator, is just ten years old when Saigon falls and she finds herself on a boat to the United States.  Supplies are scarce.  The vessel is crowded.  Ha is a kid, and she's hungry:
Morning, noon, and night
we each get
one clump of rice,
small, medium, large,
according to our height,
plus one cup of water
no matter our size.

The first hot bite
of freshly cooked rice,
plump and nutty,
makes me imagine
the taste of ripe papaya
although one has nothing
to do with the other.
Once the boat finally makes it to Guam, the family waits until it boards a plane for Florida, where it waits again, this time to be adopted by an American sponsor. Chosen at last by a car dealer from Alabama (who seeks to train Ha's brother, an engineer, in the art of car mechanics), the family moves again:

We sit and sleep in the lowest level
of our cowboy's house
where we never see
the wife.

I must stand on a chair
that stands on a tea table
to see
the sun and the moon
out a too-high window.

The wife insists
we keep out of
her neighbors' eyes.

Mother shrugs.
More room here
than two mats on a ship.

I wish she wouldn't try
to make something bad
Everything about this book feels right.  The natural quality of the child's voice.  The intelligent use of symbols.  The piercing grace of the story itself.  The deep, authentic sadness.  Simple words.  Big ideas.  A whole, long tug on the heart.  Inside Out & Back Again is a lasting achievement.  It elevates the genre.


bermudaonion said...

I thought this book was fabulous too - reading it gave me chills.

Serena said...

I cannot wait to read this book after reading Kathy's review.

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