I borrowed this lovely book from the library as early as the National Book Award Nominations – the fact that it is a novel in verse, and thus perfect in every way for our bimonthly theme made me even more intrigued. I already finished reading the book when it has been announced that it won the National Book Award for YA Literature this 2011. I was not surprised in the least. While I confess to not having read the other nominated books (I am more than certain they are luscious books as well), I would also claim that this book, by far, is one of my favorite reads in 2011 – and our Reading Calendar for 2011 indicates that I have read a grand total of 246 books since January of this year. So that IS saying a lot indeed.
10 year old Kim Hà and South Vietnam. The book begins in the year 1975 with a celebration of Tết which is “the first day of the lunar calendar.” This is one of the most important festivals in Vietnam and the ten year old Hà describes it in this fashion:
Every Tết we eat sugary lotus seeds and glutinous rice cakes. We wear all new clothes, even underneath. Mother warns how we act today foretells the whole year. Everyone must smile no matter how we feel. (p. 1)
As I was reading the first few parts of this book to my nine year old daughter, she was amazed at the fact that everyone turns a year older during the Lunar New Year regardless of their actual date of birth. Imagine everyone celebrating their birthday at the same time. No wonder it’s such a huge festival!
The reader also gets to learn about Vietnamese rituals and traditions (male feet bringing luck in the house, special dishes prepared, visitation to the I Ching Teller of Fate, among others).
From the beginning, I already have a sense of the multiple levels through which a young reader can be guided to understanding the narrative which as rock-star Librarian, Kelly Butcher from the Lemme Library has pointed out in her very comprehensive review of the book: “it looks like a poem but it doesn’t rhyme, and it reads like a regular book. You just have to get used to the short lines and breaks.”
Over and above the narrative style, one could also discuss the Vietnam War in the 70s (brief historical notes can be integrated by teachers), Vietnamese rituals and traditions, immigration policies for refugees in the United States in the early 70s among others. The novel is divided into four sections:
The first part talks about Saigon and their often-difficult life – with the smell of the war drawing closer each day. Yet, despite this, we taste the texture of life in Vietnam with Hà’s papaya tree, the rationing of meals, the smell of incense. Historically, we can trace the fall of Saigon to 30 April 1975 – and Hà talks about it in her poem entitled “Saigon is Gone” written supposedly on that same date (their family was able to escape through the help of their father’s fellow navy officer, Uncle Sðn):
We hear a helicopter circling circling near our ship. People run and scream, Communists!
Our ship dips low as the crowd runs to the left, and then to the right. This is not helping Mother. I wish they would stand still and hush.
The commander is talking: Do not be frightened! It’s a pilot for our side who has jumped into the water, letting his helicopter plunge in behind him. The pilot appears below deck, wet and shaking. He salutes the commander and shouts,
At noon today the Communists crashed their tanks through the gates of the presidential palace and planted on the roof a flag with one huge star. The he add what no one wants to hear: It’s over; Saigon is gone.
The second part of the book talks about their life At Sea, the feelings of uncertainty brought about by being adrift – neither knowing where you are headed nor whether you will be rescued at all. While Part Three is entitled Alabama and highlights how Hà and her family adjusted to being refugees and immigrants in the US during the 70s. Part Four From Now On shows how Hà and her family gradually move forward – planting flower seeds of friendship, wearing flannel nightgowns to school with pride, and learning how to fly without wings.
The amazing thing about this book is that the reader is taken through all of these things (and more) through the eyes of 10 year old Hà and her older siblings, all boys: (1) Brother Khôi, a sensitive and kind-hearted fourteen year old boy (with a special affection for cute little chicks); (2) Brother Vù, eighteen years old, the master chef with the moves that would put Bruce Lee to shame; and (3) Brother Quang the eldest son at 21 years old – opinionated, extremely intelligent, meant to be an engineer and fervently nationalistic. Hà’s father, a Navy officer, has been missing in action since she was a year old – thus her mother (whom Hà adores) struggles to raise four children by herself.
Guam and Alabama in the early 70s. There is a reason why this particular quote from the book is oft-used:
No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.
Upon arrival in the United States, Hà’s family eventually ended up in Alabama (most of the details I shall leave for you to discover). While they have narrowly escaped a bloodbath in their own homeland, they were faced with a different kind of war in their ‘new home’ – one that is more insidious, marked with ssssss, chickens that are preserved, cowboys without horses, stones thrown at their windows, doors slammed in their faces, and Mother’s Response (pp. 198-199)
Mother strokes my head. Chant, my child, Breathe in, peaceful mind. Breathe out, peaceful smile. She strokes my back. Chant, my daughter; your whispers will bloom and shelter you from words you need not hear. Chant Nam Mô A Di Ðà Phât Nam Mô Quan Thê Âm Bô Tát. * She strokes my arm. I chant, wanting the gentle strokes to continue forever. I chant, wanting Mother’s calmness to sink into me. October 31 Night*my apologies if the characters are wrong, this is all I can find in wordpress*
A few reflections on War and Peace. This book has made me cry and laugh in the same breath. It reminds us to treasure that which we have: the rich taste of ripe papayas in our tongue, the book we are holding now in our hands, our warm beds. And to never forget. Each sunrise is a gift. As we go about our daily routines, we should always be reminded that it is much easier to be happy than to be angst-ridden, unkind, and perennially wailing about things we do not have. The ground on our feet, clear clouds in the skies, the wind in our faces as our hearts fly free with whispered prayers should always be enough. As I stare at some of the photos taken during the Vietnam war, I say a silent prayer for people who continue to suffer until the present moment, immigrants and refugees in their own lands. And for each one of us who struggles to fight losing battles with ourselves.
Thanhha Lai shared in her Author’s Note found at the very end of the book that much of the things that happened to Hà also happened to her. Thanhha was also born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the war. This is her first book. She also has this to say about her experience in writing the book:
The emotional aspect is important because of something I noticed in my nieces and nephews. They may know in general where their parents came from, but they can’t really imagine the noises and smells of Vietnam, the daily challenges of starting over in a strange land. I extend this idea to all: How much do we know about those around us?
I hope you enjoy reading about Hà as much as I have enjoyed remembering the pivotal year in my life. I also hope after you finish this book that you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story. (pp. 261-262)
This is a videoclip of Thanhha Lai’s acceptance speech for the National Book Award, November of this year:
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Harper Collins Publishing, 2011. Book borrowed from the community library.