Sandra's Reviews > Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
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May 08, 12

Read from April 18 to May 01, 2012

{This review originally appeared on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves.}
I now understand
when they make fun of my name,
yelling ha-ha-ha down the hall
when they ask if I eat dog meat,
barking and chewing and falling down laughing
when they wonder if I lived in the jungle with tigers,
growling and stalking on all fours.

I understand
because Brother Khoi
nodded into my head
on the bike ride home
when I asked if kids
said the same things
at his school.

Thanhha Lai writes her verses in her award winning middle grade novel in verse, Inside Out and Back Again, from the heart, and memory of deeply felt experience.

She poignantly and artistically brings emotion, both painful and joyful, straight from the page and into the senses. She recounts her family's escape before the fall of Saigon through the eyes and the voice of Ha Ma. With other refugees they're packed into small, often unsanitary quarters on a ship that will take them to safety, freedom and a new culture.

Ha Ma, her brother Quang remembers, “was as red and fat as a baby hippopotamus” when he first saw her, thus inspiring her name, Vietnamese for river horse. He could not have imagined that in a few years her name would become the stick that tormented her in a foreign land (Alabama) far from her beloved Saigon.

I taught in a public high school for many years and some of my students were children of those leaving their homelands in search of a better or freer life. Children that were just like Ha Ma. I went through the process to become certified to teach English as a Second Language. Yet with all my training and experience I realize that I could not have known the real pain these children lived with each day, in a new and strange environment.

Reading Inside Out and Back Again brought me insights I'd never considered. Perhaps it is an all too human failing to believe we have understanding.

Emily Dickinson wrote that she knows something is poetry when,
...it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me. I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

No, Emily, there is no other way.

Verse or poetry distills experience into its most elemental form. It drips with love, scorn, hope, desperation, faith and understanding. Feeling the confusion of a small child in beautifully constructed lines brings a childlike dimension of understanding of the heart of experience.

The reader experiences this in Inside Out and Back Again, when the family is on a ship swaying in the ocean, headed for another country. Ha's fatherless family drifts rocking back and forth seeing only water stretching before them endless and overwhelming. At only ten years of age, she comes to the realization that she has only her mother and brothers.

The father lives in the family's minds as a rainbow of hope. Still they must move forward to escape certain death. If they stay in Vietnam they would likely be caught up in the throes of a lost war facing a dark, uncertain future. After a long time at sea, a sponsor from America boards their ship to bring them to a small Alabama town to begin a new life in a strange, odd land.

Thanhha Lai's writing is such that while reading, I found myself imagining myself as a child seeing someone who looks so different reaching out for my family, offering home, hope, hospitality and happiness, yet, still not feeling emotionally safe.
All the while
shame.
This year I hope
I truly learn

Needless to say, Inside Out and Back Again is most deserving of all of its aclaim. If you're not accustom to reading novels in verse, this would be a wonderful choice with which to start, as the writing is very tight and the story is completely absorbing

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Reading Progress

04/18/2012 page 161
59.0% "Thanhha Lai writes this book in verse. I don't distinguish between verse and poetry, so will use the terms interchangeably. Poetry has been called emotional shorthand. It's a good description of the writing. Told from a ten year old child's point of view, it's from her heart. It's emotional and poignant telling of her experience as Saigon falls to the north. Amid the chaos she, her mother and brother escape."
04/18/2012 page 161
59.0% "They're sponsored by a man Haa thinks of as a cowboy. This Alabama cowboy doesn't have a horse or any other western trappings. I plan to read this book without pausing to get the emotional sense, then go back to reread and savor the writing and story of the refugees in a new land."
04/18/2012 page 161
59.0% "Oops! I referred to Haa without explaining that she is the child who's the author of the verses that construct the story."
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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Abarca I loved it very very much


Celena Schmolzi Amazing book very satisfying to read.


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