Terri's Reviews > Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
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's review
Jan 13, 2012

really liked it

National Book Award winner, Tanahha Lai, presents here a fictionalized version of her own experiences living in Saigon during the Vietnam War, escaping Vietnam with her mother and three brothers as Saigon falls, surviving several weeks on a boat in the Pacific with other refugees before being rescued, spending time in a refugee camp, and finally arriving in Alabama. "Inside Out and Back Again" is a familiar story ("A Step from Heaven" by An Na, "Home of the Brave" by Kathleen Applegate, "The Latehomecomer" by Kao Kalia Yang, "The Gods Grew Tired of Us" by John Bul Dau, "What Is the What" by Dave Eggers, etc.). Nothing new here in that regard. The protagonist, Ha, loves the papaya trees and people of her homeland and does not fully understand why they are leaving. Her mother and relatives look toward America with hope, but what they find here is not what they expect. They struggle to communicate, to find work, and to make friends. They experience discrimination, bullying, loneliness, and frustration. Not to lessen the importance of these experiences, but these are familiar themes.

The question then becomes why, then, did the National Book Award committee choose to honor this book with a National Book Award? What makes it special? Was it the lyrical novel-in-verse format Lai uses to tell her story (Applegate used this format in "Home of the Brave," and it has been used in other children's/young adult novels as well)? Was it that this was her own personal story (John Bul Dau and Kao Kalia Yang tell their own stories in "God Grew Tired of Us" and "The Late Homecomer" respectively)? Was it the development of layered, nuanced characters? This was difficult to do in a novel where economy of words is Lai's goal. Though Ha comes to life for the reader, the rest of the family is not clearly delineated. Is it, then, the bringing to life of place and time in the novel that makes it stand out? Lai manages to help us see vividly the Vietnam that Ha grows up in, but Alabama could have been Anyplace, USA.

So,though I really liked this book - a fast read about an important time in our history, a story that deserves to be told again and again - there was nothing "special" here. I think this is another book that adults choose as an award winner, as something that would be good for kids to read, but not a book that stands out and will have special appeal to its intended audience. A good book that is recommended but, in my humble opinion, not the best book of the year.


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