Books set in Asia, Books Set in the South, Children's, Coming of age, Family dynamics, Finding Your Self, Historical Fiction, Lai-Thanhha, poetry, Social Commentary, Young Adult

#526 Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

 Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

The Vietnam War was an interesting point in the world’s history. It wasn’t quite a world war, but it involved so much of the Earth that it seems like it should have been. We’re still feeling the effects of what happened all those years ago in Vietnam.

Ha was born in Vietnam. Her family lived somewhere in Southern Vietnam. She tried to remember her father, but he had been taken away when she was young to work in the Navy. Ha lived with her mother and three brothers. She had a papaya tree. She watched as it grew papayas. As the papayas grew, things got worse. Words came about North Vietnam. Words came about invasions. Words came about all manner of terrible things. It was finally decided that Ha, her mother, and her three brothers would leave Vietnam. At first it was only supposed to be an escape for families of Navy men, but everyone heard. The boats were crammed full of people. They barely escaped before the city they once lived in was invaded.

Ha was on the boat with many, many other people for weeks. Finally, they were found by an American boat and taken to Guam. Since Ha and her family were refugees they would have to go somewhere else that wasn’t their home. Some people said Paris. Other people said Canada. It was whispered that America had the most choices. Ha’s mother picked America.

They had to wait for a sponsor. Finally, a man sponsored Ha’s family. They moved to Alabama. The man owned a car dealership. He wanted one of Ha’s brothers to work for him. Ha’s brother was actually studying engineering before he had to leave school in Vietnam. He was pretty good with mechanical things already. At first Ha thinks that the man who has sponsored them is a cowboy and has a horse because he wears a cowboy hat, but he doesn’t have a horse. Ha is disappointed.

She has to learn English and it’s difficult for her because English is so much different from her native language. Some people are not nice to Ha and her family because they are Vietnamese. The next door neighbor is a nice woman who welcomes Ha and her family even though her son was killed in Vietnam during the war. She helps Ha learn English.

As Ha gets better at English and at school, she makes friends. She learns to adapt to her new life. It becomes evident that life will never go back to the way it was and Ha, but Ha learns to make her own life in a strange world.

What I liked

I honestly don’t recall that I have ever read a book set in Vietnam. I know I have had intentions of doing so, but I never have. Thanhha’s book was eye-opening to me. I knew that the Vietnam war and communism tore apart Vietnam, but I didn’t really have any first-hand accounts of what happened there.

This story is a work of fiction, to an extent. Thanhha’s family had to leave Vietnam much as Ha and her family had to leave Vietnam. There were many experiences that Ha experienced that Thanhha also experienced. I was quite pleased with the way Thanhha was able to incorporate this into her story, in prose no less. Yes, the story is written as something of a poem. I usually don’t like that, but in this case, Thanhha did very well and the poetry format of the book did not detract from the story.

I have thought about the idea of being a war or political refugee before. It would be tough. It would be difficult to suddenly be homeless as far as calling a country your home. You would have to rely on some other country to accept you because a person cannot be countryless. I have to commend both the fictional character of Ha and the real person Thanhha for being able to be strong enough to leave their home and make a new life in a completely different place.

What I didn’t like

I simply don’t know enough about all the politics involved in the Vietnam War to make any strong statements about anything involved with it, but I do think it’s sad that so many people had to leave their country. I really have given the idea of being a political/war refugee some thought. It would be awful. I’ve tried to get into a state of mind where I could imagine what that would be like. It would feel terrible. As someone without a country, you would never know what would happen next. Until you’re a citizen of one place or another, no country has to treat you with respect in respect to the laws that govern human rights. I’m sure the United Nations and other international organizations do have some things to say about how refugees and POWs are treated though. As a refugee you’re at the mercy of everyone else. They could be good to you or they could be bad to you.

There isn’t really a whole lot that would have prevented some of these refugees from being murdered or trafficked while they were fleeing their country. In fact, I’m sure some of that happened. Just because someone says they’re going to take you on a boat to somewhere better, doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen.

I think Ha and her family were lucky. None of it was easy and it wasn’t lucky that all this misfortune happened to them in the first place, but they were lucky to have gotten away. They were lucky to have found a place. They were lucky to make a new life.

I’ve read stories concerning displaced people before. It’s for one thing or the other, war, genocide, natural disaster, whatever, it happens and it’s awful. You’re essentially shoved out of your life. Good luck Buddy! Hope you’re alive in two weeks! The feeling of uncertainty must be just awful. It has to be one of the heaviest feelings in the world. Where will we go? How will we live? What will we eat? How will we talk to people? How will we get there? Will all of us make it there? Will we ever get to go back home? These are questions that are left unanswered for longer than any of us want to leave these questions left unanswered.


This book has definitely made me think about what happened to all those people who did have to leave their homes during the Vietnam War.

Weigh In

How do you think Ha’s life turned out in Alabama?

Using your imagination, if you had been a political refugee and had to make your home in a new country, would you ever want to go back to your home country, if allowed? Would the memories of the bad times there outweigh anything good that might come out of it for you or would it be a good thing to see the land in which you once lived?


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