A book is what the author makes it combined with layers of what the reader brings to it. Having seen the publicity surrounding Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai when it won the National Book Award and Newbery Honor Award, I was glad to find it on our local library shelves.
The inside cover blurb read, “No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.” The quote intrigued me because I knew I brought two layers of meaning with me to the book. My Army husband was among the last to leave Saigon in the American withdrawal process. He was in a group of American soldiers held in South Vietnam to insure that the last of three groups of POWs would be released from North Vietnam. I had watched the news regularly for that last airlift, knowing that would be my signal that Al would be in line for his turn on a troop plane headed home.
My other link was my mother’s love for a young Vietnamese woman who had married a GI from the rural community where my father served as pastor. Mama’s relationship with her began with English lessons and mushroomed from there much like MiSSisss WaSShington in Lai’s book. Years later when people gathered to celebrate Mama’s eightieth birthday, she was the person Mama was most happy to see again.
Thanhha Lai writes her narrative of Ha´ coming to terms with her new culture with lyrical sadness leading to a welcoming ray of hope as it draws to a close. Authenticity comes because Lai lived much of the story herself.
I found myself bringing another layer of meaning as I remembered acquaintances like those Ha´ meets in Alabama who would have tried to help her and those who would have wished her and her family gone. Both sets of people are secondary to the beautiful insight through the eyes and heart of a young girl who sometimes preferred a wartime Saigon that was home to a peaceful Alabama that was not.
I didn’t set out to be reading immigration books back-to-back, even though that is certainly a current topic. Quite coincidentally, I followed this book with Out of Nowhere written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy who was part of a community where Somali refugees are relocated. Look for that review in my next blog.