Saturday, November 19, 2011
From Saigon to Alabama
Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
National Book Award 2011
In 1975, young Ha and her family are scraping by in Saigon, waiting for her father, a naval officer, to return. When the family learns that South Vietnam will soon fall to the communists, however, Ha's mother makes the difficult choice to flee. Crammed onto a boat with hundreds of other families, Ha and her family decide to go to America, where they are sponsored by a man in Alabama.
While the book is divided into thematic sections -- Saigon, the boat, and America -- the American section is definitely the longest and one of the more emotional sections, as Lai details Ha's attempts to fit in at school and in the community. Aside from a neighbor who happens to be a retired teacher who helps Ha with her English, there are few likeable American characters. It is unclear if this was intentional in order for readers to better sympathize with the Vietnamese protagonists or if it is factual, as Ms. Lai based a number of events on her own childhood in the South.
Given the subject matter, I had expected the book to be far more emotional. Perhaps it is because the verse prevents any major character depth or analysis, but I felt rather disconnected throughout its duration. I'm glad that there is a children's book about the fall of Saigon written through the POV of a Vietnamese child, but I feel like this book, at least, is more focused on America and assimilation. It's a worthy attempt, but it falls short.