Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always insightful account of a young Vietnamese refugee. Written as a free verse journal, Há Mã begins her story in the bustling city of Saigon, Vietnam, where she lives a middle class life with her three older brothers and mother. The year is 1975 and her country is engaged in a civil war with the Communists from the north in a battle against the south. Her father was a naval officer, fighting for the south when he became missing in action nine years ago. Her family does not know what happened to him, if he is dead or alive. As the fighting get closer to Saigon and the American soldiers leave, life becomes more difficult. The family has less food to eat and her mother must find extra work. Many of their friends are fleeing the country. Há doesn’t want to leave but when it becomes apparent that the north is going to overtake the south, Há’s uncle arranges for the family to flee the country on a ship.
Carrying one pack each, Há and her family leave their home and board a crowded ship. The trip out of Vietnam is dangerous with too many people and not enough food until an American ship rescues them. They land on the island Guam and live in a refugee tent city until they travel to another tent city in Florida. From there, a man in Alabama sponsors her family. They begin a new life in the basement of their sponsor’s home in Alabama.
Adjusting to life in a new country is not easy for Há and her family. The food tastes terrible. The neighbors don’t like them. Her mother must go to work in a factory, and her brother, who was studying to be an engineer, gets a job repairing cars. Há’s job is to learn English, which is difficult and perplexing. She goes from being one of the brightest students in her class in Vietnam to feeling stupid in her middle grade American school. The children make fun of her and a bully taunts her daily. Há and her family find allies and friends, and little by little, make a place for themselves.
Há’s story is based on Thanhha Lai’s experiences as a refugee from Vietnam whose family settled in Alabama. Inside Out and Back Again was her debut novel and won many awards including the Newbery Honor and National Book Award.