76 pages 2 hours read

Thanhha Lai

Inside Out And Back Again

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Middle Grade | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The story opens in February 1975. Hà lives with her mother and three older brothers (Brother Quang, Brother Vũ, and Brother Khôi) in Saigon, South Vietnam. Hà knows her father, a naval officer, only through Mother’s stories and memories; he disappeared nine years earlier, a victim of the Communist Army of North Vietnam.

Hà learns fractions, practices embroidery, and celebrates the start of the new lunar year on Tết (February 11). As spring and Hà’s 10th birthday approach, however, the impact of the Vietnam War worsens in Saigon, and the possibility of the Communist Army’s takeover looms. Food is scarce, and prices are high; Mother makes little money although she works extra hours as a seamstress after her day job as a secretary. Uncle Sơn, Father’s friend who helps to look after them, tells Mother that she, Hà, and Hà’s brothers should prepare to escape the country on a navy vessel. Their shrinking food supply prompts Mother’s decision to leave, and she sews each of them a satchel in which to carry a few possessions. Photographs, mementos, and Hà’s beloved papaya tree must stay behind. They escape down a river toward the sea just as the Communists take control of Saigon.

Conditions are rough aboard the refugee ship, and the captain orders rationing of food and water. After more than three weeks, an American naval vessel arrives with supplies and tows the ship to Guam. From the camp there, most of the Vietnamese refugees choose to resettle in France, the United States, or Canada. Mother chooses the United States. In another camp in Florida, they meet a man from Alabama whom Hà is certain must be a cowboy because of his hat. Mr. Johnston, the “cowboy,” actually owns a car dealership, and he sponsors the family’s move to his town. He helps them find a rental house, schools, and jobs.

Mr. Johnston’s wife and most neighbors are unwelcoming at first. One neighbor, Miss Washington, treats them very kindly and offers to help tutor each family member in English. Hà is scared by a bully (Pink Boy) on the first day at her new school; she spends the next several weeks avoiding making friends and hiding in the bathroom during lunch and recess. With help from Miss Washington, Mother, her brothers, and new friends, Hà overcomes the bully’s threats and defeats him when he tries to physically hurt her.

A letter from Father’s family in North Vietnam brings sadness and worry to the family in late December. It reports that Father’s family members still have no information on Father’s whereabouts, even after inquiring widely about him at the end of the war. When Hà’s mother loses the amethyst stone from a ring Father gave her, she encourages the children to accept her intuitive certainty that Father is gone.

Hà enjoys increasing acceptance at school and in her neighborhood; similarly, her own acceptance of others grows. As Tết, the celebration of the new year, draws near again, Hà reflects upon both the last year and her new life in Alabama; though living in America is very different from the way she grew up in South Vietnam, some changes are not bad, especially after learning to accept help, take risks, and make compromises. Hà celebrates Tết appreciating her family, their safety, and her future.

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