by Thanhha Lai
First sentence: “Today is Tet, the first day of the lunar calendar.”
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It’s 1975, in South Vietnam, and Ha is 10. She’s the youngest of four children, the only girl after three boys, a fact which kind of bothers her. Her father is missing; he left on a Navy mission and never returned. The rest of the family is surviving, but with the Americans pulling out, and the Communists advancing, the family decides to flee to America.
This novel in verse tells the story of Ha and her family over the course of a year; from their life in Vietnam, through their flight and all that entails, and finally their adjustment to life in Alabama. It’s simplicity is deceptive: sure there’s not many words on the page, which makes it read fast, but this novel packs a punch. Immigrant stories are all the rage these days, some more dramatic than others. This one is low on the drama scale, thankfully skirting the edge of the Vietnam War instead of delving into the mess that it was. That leaves room for the longing for the home, the missing of family, the desperation of adjusting to a new life, and Ha’s personal issues of being a girl in a heavily-male family. It reaches out to kids on all levels: a story that’s both foreign (no, I could not pronounce the Vietnamese) and familiar.