Every New Year brings the war closer and closer to Ha's Saigon home. But the idea of leaving is unthinkable. Ha desperately holds onto the hope that her father, who has been missing in action for nearly nine years, will walk back in the door one day and if the family leaves then how will he find them? But as the bombs reach the outskirts of the city her mother knows it's time to run.
They can only take a very few things with them when the city falls to the Communist army, just what they can carry. Her mother takes 10 family photos and burns the rest and Ha would like to take her beloved papaya tree that she's grown from seed but, of course, that's impossible. It feels like she's losing everything she's ever loved when she goes from being deeply rooted in Vietnam to being rootless in a world that doesn't seem to want anything to do with her. In the crush of thousands of people trying to escape the bombing they end up on an overcrowded ship with their few belongings and not enough of the essentials like food. Before long they're floating around in the ocean, lost on an overcrowded ship and starving.
When they do finally land they end up in the United States. Alabama to be exact and it feels like they're still in a war zone. People, kids and adults, bully and threaten Ha daily. Life is alien and hard. Adjusting to this new existence takes time, the love of her family and the kindness of strangers. The journey is unforgettable.
Author Thanhha Lai has written this semi autobiographical novel of survival in a time of great change in free verse which works beautifully. Her ability to capture complex and intense moments through lyrical verse is impressive. Inside Out and Back Again is in the same arena as Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy in dealing with frightening historical events in a way that is wonderfully accessible for children in grades 4 on up.