Monday, December 28, 2015

Reading Through History: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

After the fall of Saigon, Ha, her mother, and older brothers flee their home in Vietnam and travel to the United States, where they do their best to settle into their new lives in Alabama. Ha not only struggles with the tricky rules of the English language, but also with the cruelty of her classmates and a strong sense of longing for her missing father.

This novel in verse is based on the author's own experiences following the Vietnam War. The story begins with the celebration of Tet at home in Vietnam, and concludes with the same celebration one year later in the US, showing along the way the many struggles - including a long voyage by ship with very little food or drink - that the family must endure. Though I sometimes question whether kids really read many novels in verse, I think this was the best way to tell this particular story, as the poetry makes the hardship, turmoil and emotional heaviness of the story easier to digest and understand. Lai's more recent novel, Listen, Slowly, is beautifully written, but also very dense and descriptive, and had this book been written in that same style it would have felt burdensome to slog through.

When I was in high school, we never made it past World War II in any history class, so I have always been partial to historical fiction set in the second half of the 20th Century, as it teaches me all the things I never studied. The 1970s are especially interesting to me, as this is when my mom was a teenager, and I grew up surrounded by a lot of 70s pop culture. Though this was not the typical kids' novel set in the 70s, it broadened my horizons significantly and I imagine it would do much the same for any reader, child or adult, who is unfamiliar with the Vietnam war and its aftermath.

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