You know how you read that “one great book” in a certain genre and then everything else in that genre that you read gets compared to that one great book? When it comes to novels written in the form of poems, I can’t let go of Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. She did such a masterful job of using poetry to get at the heart of a story. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is not Love That Dog but it is something special in its own right.
Inside Out & Back Again shares the inner thoughts of a young girl, Ha, whose family must evacuate Saigon when that city falls during the Vietnam War. The father is missing in action — a weight which the entire family carries with them wherever they go — and Ha and her mother and brothers end up re-locating to Alabama. The short poems are touching, and full of voice of Ha, and our perceptions of the world through her eyes as she faces a loss of home, remembering a father she never knew, and then assimilation into an American town that is reluctant to accept her family as its own is powerful to experience.
I have to admit: when the neighbor (a retired teacher) finally becomes the one person that Ha can turn to for advice and help, and then you learn that she lost her only son in the Vietnam War, and Ha asks her if she blames Ha for the death of her son …. I got choked up and had to brush back tears. It’s a moment that comes suddenly, and so openly, that you understand then how the writer’s use of poetry to tell the story from an emotional standpoint makes sense.
Unlike Love That Dog, the poems that make up the story here would not really stand on their own as poems, I don’t think. But woven together, they form the tapestry of an immigrant story and remind us that those who make their ways into another country have stories to tell, even if they don’t have the language to tell it. Their outwards silence masks an inner voice that is alive and powerful, full of fear and confidence, and we should not be deceived by appearances.
Inside Out & Back Again (which won a National Book Award and was a Newbery Medal Honor winner) is a terrific book, and reminds us of how stories can transform lives. A short note at the end by Lai informs us that Lai’s journey is similar to Ha’s, and her own experiences in the aftermath of the Vietnam War here in America are what inspired her to write the story. For the reader, it is a reminder of how we all need to be more accepting and more kind to those who are trying to forge a new life here amongst us. All students need to hear that message.
Peace (in the poem),