What a powerful debut work from new voice Thanhha Lai-- a loosely autobiographical work about her own experience as a refugee from Vietnam in the 1970s. The 10-year-old heroine of this taut novel in verse, Hà, narrates the story which is broken into 4 sections:
Each section offers a well-developed whole with a strong sense of place unique to each—life in Vietnam, surviving on a refugee boat, transplanting in an Alabama town. The transition between each place occurs quickly (as it would in reality) and offers the reader a strong sense of the displacement and constant re-orientation that the characters experience. This also provides a framework for a fast-moving plot that keeps the reader turning the page and wondering how the family will cope with each new challenge.
Amidst all this upheaval, Lai also manages to carve out distinct characterizations of Hà and each member of her family, including her resilient mother and each of her three brothers. Even characters in the “new” environment (sponsor, teacher, neighbor) emerge as multi-dimensional individuals. Our protagonist is often the least sympathetic character—rebellious, insecure, somewhat selfish—but her honest observations manage to be touching, poignant, and often hilarious while balancing the tightrope of authentic child voice and reliable story narrator. Lai does not shy away from including harsh difficulties and sadness, as well as offering hope that grows out of the characters’ strengths and love. Set in 1975, the book rings true today as new groups of refugees cope with war, camps, relocation, language learning, and cultural adjustment across the globe.
In her “Author’s Note” concluding the verse novel, Lai concludes, “I also hope after you finish this book that you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story” (p. 262). In her dedication she acknowledges “To the millions of refugees in the world, may you each find a home”—what an invitation for kids to look for ways to welcome others in their immediate environment who may be eager for a friendly gesture and kind word.
Other novels in verse about cultural identity:
Burg, Ann. ALL THE BROKEN PIECES. ISBN 978-0545080927
McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. UNDER THE MESQUITE. ISBN 978-1600604294
Thompson, Holly. ORCHARDS. ISBN 978-0385739788
By Sylvia M. Vardell