Half-way through reading this debut autobiographical novel-in-verse, I had a lively conversation about the cover with a delightful new friend who happens to be a bonafide kiddie-book expert. We had just finished sharing our shock over the recent fiasco surrounding the one-too-many finalists for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (Chime, not Shine), and what came up almost immediately after was this cover …
Our verdict on said cover in the most neutral terms (other words were exchanged) was that it was incongruous with the contents. The pink and purple background, the spindly, cartoonish figure of the little girl, her right hand upraised just so … we both readily agreed that the other novel-in-verse about the 10-year-old Vietnam War survivor (how many could there be?) was much better packaged: all the broken pieces by Ann E. Burg. Both titles together, by the way, make for illuminating companion texts in exploring the post-Vietnam War refugee immigrant experience.
As the lunar new year of 1975 begins, 10-year-old Hà rises early to be the first to “tap my big toe / to the tile floor / first.” She realizes she’s disobeying her mother who warned the night before that one of her three older brothers “must rise first / this morning / to bless our house / because only male feet / can bring luck.” That decision will haunt the rest of her year, one filled with momentous changes both wrenching and redeeming.
As Saigon falls, Hà’s family boards an old navy ship and leaves their homeland forever, eventually arriving in the U.S. sponsored by a kind man (a “cowboy” without a horse) in Alabama and his not-at-all-friendly wife. Life in the new country is an enormous adjustment for all, but especially for young Hà who must navigate the cruel intolerance of her new schoolmates.
While the immigration story is familiar, Thanhha Lai‘s ability to conjure the most evocative details give her sparse verse lasting gravitas: the irresistible fried dough Hà stealthily buys at the open market at the cost of one gram less pork, 1/8 of a bushel less of spinach, and a quarter cube less tofu than what her mother trusts her to bring home; the white handkerchief which holds together Hà’s mouse-bitten doll with arms wrapped around her brother’s beloved dead chick, that comprise the precious bundle thrown into the sea as “Last Respects” in honor of a South Vietnam that no longer exists; the bewildering spelling rules of an impossible new language in which “Knife becomes knives” and “it makes more sense / for moldy to be spelled molde” because “Whoever invented English / should have learned / to spell”; the loving next-door neighbor who nurtures Hà with words, hugs, and patience, who eventually gifts Hà a small part of her faraway Vietnam in a book of photographs sent by her late soldier-son.
Indeed, Lai’s smallest moments prove to be the most powerful.
Before I close, I will confess I had a few word-eating revelations about that cover (the cartoony aspect still bugs me): that’s Hà’s beloved papaya tree of her youth, which she holds on to as she bears witness to the destruction of her homeland, the encroaching bombs causing the evening sky to light up in ironically spectacular colors just before everything will be obliterated into smoky darkness …
Tidbit: In my old age, I’m sooo reminded of that smoldering final shot of the first half of Gone with the Wind with Vivian Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara turned away from the camera, facing the impending night sky, crying “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again …!!” Thank goodness young Hà isn’t such a drama queen …!!
Readers: Middle Grade