Inside Out and Back Again

by

Thanhhà Lai

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Themes and Colors
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
Bullying, Racism, and Self-Doubt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Inside Out and Back Again, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon

Inside Out and Back Again is 10-year-old ’s story of escaping her home country of Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. At this time, Vietnam was divided in two, the communist North Vietnam and the Western-aligned South Vietnam, where Hà and her family live. The Fall of Saigon refers to the North’s invasion and capture of South Vietnam, and the unification of the two entities into a single country. For Hà and her family, this isn’t a happy experience: they fear that the Communist soldiers will brainwash them, execute them, or otherwise make them disappear because Hà’s father (who’s been missing in action for nine years) was in the South Vietnamese navy and fought against the North. As threats of violence increase, and as the economic situation gets worse (even food staples like rice become exorbitantly expensive), Hà’s mother decides there’s only one thing to do to protect the family: leave South Vietnam and escape the war altogether.

As a young child, though, Hà doesn’t fully grasp the complexity of the situation in her home country. She’s more concerned with wishing she had beautiful long hair, trying to ignore her three older brothers’ teasing, and admiring her beloved papaya tree’s first crop of papayas. And while Hà never totally loses her ability to find joy in the world around her, her family’s choice to flee the conflict in Vietnam also means that Hà is forced to grow up before she’s ready. For instance, Hà helps Brother Khôi find closure after his beloved baby chick dies by ceremonially tossing both the chick’s body and her own favorite doll into the sea. This deprives her of her only childish comfort, leaving her feeling even more alone—but it also shows Hà maturely prioritizing someone else’s needs over her own. Once the family immigrates to Alabama, Hà also finds that she’s not able to enjoy things she once enjoyed in Vietnam, like fresh papaya. Instead, Hà ha to learn to “make do” with dried papaya—and when she eventually deems rehydrated dried papaya “not bad” instead of rejecting it outright, as she did at first, the novel frames this shift is a turning point in her maturity. Through the changes Hà undergoes, the novel suggests that war is inherently transformative for all who are touched by it, and that it can force children to mature much faster than they might have otherwise.

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War, Childhood, and Maturity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of War, Childhood, and Maturity appears in each chapter of Inside Out and Back Again. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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War, Childhood, and Maturity Quotes in Inside Out and Back Again

Below you will find the important quotes in Inside Out and Back Again related to the theme of War, Childhood, and Maturity.
Part 1: Saigon Quotes

They’re heading to Vūng Tau,
he says,
where the rich go
to flee Vietnam
on cruise ships.

I’m glad we’ve become poor
so we can stay.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Khôi (speaker), TiTi
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Mother says
if the price of eggs
were not the price of rice,
and the price of rice
were not the price of gasoline,
and the price of gasoline
were not the price of gold,
then of course
Brother Khôi
could continue hatching eggs.

She’s sorry.

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Brother Khôi, Kim Hà
Page Number: 16-17
Explanation and Analysis:

Five papayas
the sizes of
my head,
a knee,
two elbows,
and a thumb
cling to the trunk.

Still green
but promising.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, Uncle Son
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Mother says yellow papaya
tastes lovely
dipped in chili salt.
You children should eat
fresh fruit
while you can.

Brother Vū chops;
the head falls;
a silver blade slices.

Black seeds spill
like clusters of eyes,
wet and crying.

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Vū/Vu Lee
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: At Sea Quotes

Brother Khôi nods
and I smile,
but I regret
not having my doll
as soon as the white bundle
sinks into the sea.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Khôi
Related Symbols: Dolls
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Alabama Quotes

I bite down on a thigh;
might as well bite down on
bread soaked in water.

Still,
I force yum-yum sounds.

I hope to ride
the horse our cowboy
surely has.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), The Cowboy
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

No, Mr. Johnston
doesn’t have a horse,
nor has he ever ridden one.

What kind of a cowboy is he?

To make it worse,
the cowboy explains
horses here go
neigh, neigh, neigh,
not hee, hee, hee.

No they don’t.

Where am I?

Related Characters: Brother Quang (speaker), Kim Hà (speaker), The Cowboy
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

I shout, I’m so mad.
I shouldn’t have to run away.

Tears come.

Brother Vū
has always been afraid
of my tears.
I’ll teach you defense.

How will that help me?

He smiles huge,
so certain of himself.
You’ll see.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Vū/Vu Lee (speaker), Pink Boy
Page Number: 152-53
Explanation and Analysis:

She makes me learn rules
I’ve never noticed,
like a, an, and the,
which act as little megaphones
to tell the world
whose English
is still secondhand.

[…]

A, an, and the
do not exist in Vietnamese
and we understand
each other just fine.

I pout,
but MiSSS WaSShington says
every language has annoyances and illogical rules,
as well as sensible beauty.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSSisss WaSShington
Page Number: 166-67
Explanation and Analysis:

I try
but can’t fall asleep,
needing amethyst-ring twirls
and her lavender scent.

I’m not as good as Mother
at making do.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
over
peacetime in Alabama.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSS SScott
Page Number: 194-95
Explanation and Analysis:

Yet
on the dining table
on a plate
sit strips of papaya
gooey and damp,
having been soaked in hot water.

The sugar has melted off
leaving
plump
moist
chewy
bites.

Hummm…

Not the same,
but not bad
at all.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, MiSSSisss WaSShington
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: From Now On Quotes

I tell her
a much worse embarrassment
is not having
a gift for Pem.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, Pem/Pam, TiTi
Related Symbols: Dolls
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis: