Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Family

By Thanhha Lai

Family

I can't make my brothers
go live elsewhere,
but I can
hide their sandals. (1.3.5)

Big brothers might be hard to live with, but Hà has learned to cope. How? By getting them back by hiding the only shoes they own. A war might be raging nearby, but these kids have a classic sibling relationship.

Father left home
on a navy mission
on this day
nine years ago
when I was almost one. (1.6.1)

What would it be like to never know your father, but to be surrounded by a family who all got to, and who long for his return? Hà seems to long for Father as well, although she never knew life with him in it.

I should side with
my most tolerable brother,
but I love a soft yolk
to dip bread. (1.8.5)

Brother Khoi seems like he's Hà's favorite brother, and being a thoughtful person, she realizes that siding with him would be wise… but she lets her stomach get in the way. Not that we blame her—egg yolks are delicious.

I don't know
any more about Father
than the small things
Mother lets slip. (1.12.1)

Some families are private, and Hà's family, especially her mother, seems to be one of these, preferring not to talk about anything upsetting.

The same week,
North and South
closed their doors.
No more migration.
No more letters.
No more family. (1.14.12)

How awful for those people. We cannot imagine being banned from talking with our families, and this poem reminds us that the Hà is lucky to have hers close by.

Mother smells of lavender
and warmth; (1.16.4)

Moms are like living homes when we're young, which Hà is tapping into here.

He holds out his pinky
and stares
stares
stares
until I extend mine
and we hook. (1.22.5)

We can see that Hà is growing tight with Khoi, but is this kind of promise one she should be making? Looks like she's a reluctant participant in this pinky promise.

Uncle Son and Father
Graduated in the same navy class.
[…]
Father watches over us
Even if he's not here.
(1.26.4)

Sometimes family friends can become as close as family. It seems like Uncle Son, though not really their uncle, has taken on the role and helps them feel safe. Their dad might be gone, but at least Uncle Son tries to watch out for them in Father's honor.

Next morning
halfway down the block,
away from mother's eyes,
I hear the clink clank of Brother Khoi's bicycle. (3.21.1)

Just when Hà needs him the most (at least so far), Brother Khoi comes to the rescue. Pro tip, Shmoopers: It pays to be kind to your siblings.

Mother invites our cowboy
and MiSSSisss WaSShington
for egg rolls.

They brought gifts,
not saying
Early Christmas,
not wanting
to embarrass us…(3.54.1)

A new kind of family emerges from the ashes of the old one that died in Saigon. This one is modern and American and includes the friends you make when you need people the most.

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