Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inside Out And Back Again

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make time every week to read more books, which I tend not to do when I'm fully absorbed in my own writing. Being a finalist for this year's South Carolina Children's Book Awards, (it's still thrilling to say that), and seeing so many titles on the list that intrigue me, I'm determined to read most of them before the winner is announced in March of 2013.

While I usually don’t gravitate toward novels told in verse like Inside Out And Back Again, Thanhha Lai--the first-time author of this National Book Award winner--composes such beautiful, vivid prose, I feel as if I could taste the papaya tree fruit  “middle sweet, between a mango and a pear,” and feel the warm breezes of Saigon just before South Vietnam crumbled.

Told by 10-year-old Ha, who navigates her place in a community left cautious, frightened, and rationed at the cusp of Vietnam War, Ha feels helpless both as a child, and as a girl in a culture favoring boys like her 3 older brothers. Ha’s bursts of random thoughts riddle the calendar of the novel (which begins and ends with Tet, the first day of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year), like sharp staccato notes on a keyboard. Her two anchors are the papaya tree that has grown serendipitously in the yard from discarded seeds, and her beloved mother.

The family manages to escape just before Saigon falls, and journey by boat to become refugees. Finally ending up in America, the tone and pace abruptly changes, and Ha’s disappointment with her new world is palpable. As Ha pronounces: “No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”  

I preferred hearing about Ha's life on the run (I suppose I was hoping things would then get better for them in America, somehow). Yet the language of the book is so unexpectedly stunning, I spent the day away from my writing and read it in one sitting. 

I won’t soon forget my favorite line in the book where Ha writes about her mother: ”She’s wrong, but I still love being near her even more than I love my papaya tree. I will give her its first fruit.”

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