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Inside Out

My whole life, I have never been able to answer the question, “What’s your favorite book?” (It was hard enough to decide which one of the Chronicles of Narnia was my favorite!) Now, I can.

I read this book a year ago, and I loved it so much I picked it up again even though I’m trying to get through more books that are new to me. I tell my friends, if you like literature, or refugees, or family, or really anything in life – you will like this book. That about covers it, hmm?

So, the book itself: It’s written from the perspective of a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam War. Her father is military but has been MIA for years, and her family ends up being able to sneak out of Vietnam on a ship. It’s written in free verse, and it’s her story of leaving, arriving in a new place where she doesn’t know the language, and trying to establish a new life in Alabama.

One of the aspects of this book I find so compelling is that she, as a ten-year-old, relates things that are happening that she doesn’t understand. But as an adult reader, you do. So you actually know more than the narrator does about her own story, which is a really interesting dynamic.

There’s so much of this book I love, but I’ll try to narrow it down to just a few parts to share…

“Brother Quang says,
One cannot justify war
unless each side
flaunts its own
blind conviction.” (25)

“Mother measures
rice grains
left in the bin.
Not enough to last
till payday
at the end of the month.

Her brows
twist like laundry
being wrung dry.

Yam and manioc
taste lovely
blended with rice,
she says, and smiles,
as if I don’t know
how the poor
fill their children’s bellies.” (37)

(Each child is allowed one personal item to take with them for immigration to America):
“I choose my doll,
once lent to a neighbor
who left it outside,
where mice bit
her left cheek
and right thumb.

I love her more
for her scars.” (55)

(School lunchroom):
“On one side
of the bright, noisy room,
light skin.
Other side,
dark skin.

Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred
to them
someone medium
would show up.” (143)

There are images of a mother grieving for her husband (“Missing in Action”), sibling love (“Last Respects”), a son’s defense of his parents’ love (“Amethyst Ring”), the trials of learning English (“First Rule,” “Second Rule,” etc.), and struggles at school (“Confessions”).

So much beauty.