Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Ten-year-old Hà lives in Vietnam with her mother and three older brothers. Quang is 21 and studying to be an engineer. Vũ is 18, and Khôi is 14. Her father has been missing for nine years, after leaving on a navy mission. This semi-autobiographical account is told in short, nonrhyming poems. It outlines one year in Hà’s life, from Tet, the Lunar New Year in 1975 to the same day in 1976.
Hà’s mother warns that the way they behave on the first day of the year foretells the rest of it. Mother insists one of the brothers must wake up early to put his foot on the floor and bless the house. Angry that a boy gets to do this job, Hà purposely wakes before dawn to put her own foot on the floor first. Mother’s fortuneteller predicts their lives will be a tangle that year.
Vietnam is in crisis. Communists have reached Saigon and have caused prices to soar. Hà’s best friend flees Vietnam by cruise ship with other wealthy families. Hà is glad to be poor so they can stay.
Mother and Hà attend an annual ceremony for war wives, at which the president speaks. He cries for the camera, but Mother is disgusted because she knows his tears aren’t real. As the conflict intensifies, Mother calls a family meeting and discusses ways they might leave the country. Khôi initially refuses to go with them, worried that Father will return and be unable to find them. Mother finally convinces him Father would be proud that he obeyed his mother and kept the family together.
Hà’s family packs few supplies. They burn all but a few of their photographs and board a crowded boat that leaves the harbor at night to avoid the communists’ bombs. The boat captain reports communists have crashed their tanks through the presidential palace and have taken Saigon.
Two weeks into their rough sea voyage, the commander reports South Vietnam no longer exists. Distraught about the loss of their country, a woman tries to throw herself overboard, and a man stabs his heart with a toothbrush. Khôi brought a baby chicken, but it dies in the chaos. Hà wraps it inside her doll, and they throw both items into the sea. After many days with few rations, an American ship rescues them.
In Guam, Hà and her family study English in a refugee camp. Mother decides the family should relocate to America because the boys will have more opportunities. When they land in Florida, they must wait for an American to sponsor them. Mother learns that people are getting sponsor families more quickly if their applications say they are Christians. She tells the kids all beliefs are pretty much the same, and she changes their religious affiliation on the form. Soon, a cowboy from Alabama agrees to sponsor them.
The family lives in the basement of the cowboy’s home because his wife doesn’t want the neighbors to see them. They struggle to learn English and adjust to American food. Hà thinks America is clean, quiet and lonely. The cowboy helps them get a small house of their own, and Hà struggles to be grateful for the meager accommodations.
Mother gets a sewing job, and Quang works repairing cars. The others attend school. Hà’s classmates make her feel like she’s odd, and a pink boy with white hair throws rocks at her. Hà hates always feeling stupid because she was smart back in Vietnam.
People egg Hà’s house and throw bricks through the window. The cowboy introduces them to the neighbor, Miss Washington, who is a retired teacher. She volunteers to tutor the kids, and Hà’s English begins to improve. The cowboy convinces Mother that the family should go to his Baptist church and get baptized. He says neighbors will be friendlier if this happens. Hà is dismayed to learn they will have to return every Sunday thereafter.
Hà starts to make a few friends, though the pink boy continues to terrorize her. Her teacher tries to educate the class about Vietnam, and the pink boy and his friends chant Buddha’s name, mocking the way Hà pronounced it. Hà grows increasingly sad and angry about her new home, feeling she will always be teased and considered stupid. She wonders if she ruined the whole family’s luck. Mother urges her to fight, but not with her fists. She becomes braver and responds to the taunts of “Buddha” by yelling “Jesus.”
Christmas comes and the family receives gifts from the cowboy and new friends. Hà is disappointed when she receives dried papaya, which is entirely different from the fresh papaya she loved back home. Mother soaks the pieces in hot water. Hà realizes that even though they’re not the same as she remembers, they’re not so bad.
Despite Mother’s continued chanting and looking for signs, there is no word on Father. When Mother loses a ring he gave her, she takes it as a sign he is truly gone. They have a ceremony to chant Father into eternal peace.
Since there is no I Ching Teller of Fate nearby, Mother predicts the year ahead. She says new and old will intermingle until it doesn’t matter which is which. They set up an altar, burn incense and pray for the year ahead.
Mother learns they are more likely to get a sponsor family if they claim to be Christians. Their sponsor tells them people will be “neighborlier” if they are baptized, so they agree.
On the anniversary of Father leaving, Mother prepares an altar and offers incense and fruit while chanting for his return. She chants for him at other times as well. Mother’s fortuneteller predicts their lives will be a tangle that year. Despite their being coerced into baptism, the family members do not change their beliefs (presumably Buddhist) or religious practices.
Father has been missing for nine years after leaving for a navy mission. Mother works several jobs to support the family and fights to keep them together. She still grieves for her missing husband. President Thiệu cries and pretends to be sympathetic as he addresses military families, but his insincerity is evident.
Hà’s teacher shows the class photos of Vietnam, including a burned, naked girl crying, desperate people screaming as they try to leave Saigon and skeletal refugees on a sinking boat.
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