Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Warfare

By Thanhha Lai

Warfare

Maybe soldiers will no longer
patrol our neighborhood,
maybe I can jump rope
after dark… (1.2.2)

One reality of warfare in a community is being surrounded by it all the time, and just getting used to it. Soldiers are all over the place in Saigon, and Hà has to live by a curfew.

Father left home
on a navy mission
[…]
He was captured
on Route 1… (1.6.1)

Warfare takes a real toll on families, and while the soldiers risk life and limb, the people left behind are devastated by their absence. Hà's family will never know what happened to Father, and it takes them nearly a decade to accept his absence and say goodbye.

But when we keep talking about
[…]
How many distant bombs
were heard the previous night,
Miss Xinh finally says no more. (1.9.2)

Instead of the latest movie or hit single on the radio, the kids in class discuss warfare. Bombs going off signals death and destruction, but do the children realize this?

Brother Quang says,
One cannot justify war
Unless each side
Flaunts its own
Blind conviction.
(1.13.6)

It’s the slimmest of silver linings, but at least war prompts people to do some good, hard, philosophical thinking.

Every spring
President Thieu
holds a long long long
ceremony to comfort
war wives. (1.16.1)

This gesture is as small as the president's ceremony is long, and while the food they receive is enough to get Hà's mother to show up, it's not enough to inspire her to say thank you for.

A siren screams
over Miss Xinh's voice
[…]
School's now closed;
Everyone must go home
a month too soon. (1.18.1)

This takes snow day to a whole new level—and, no, Hà is not happy about it. You wouldn't be either if it meant going to school had simply become too dangerous.

In the distance
bombs explode like thunder
slashes
lighten the sky,
gunfire
falls like rain. (1.24.2)

We cannot imagine how terrifying it would be to live so close to a battle and wonder if it will land on your house/family/life, but the way Hà describes it is oddly beautiful, as natural as the weather.

Bodies cram
every centimeter
below deck,
then every centimeter
on deck. (1.32.3)

This image shows us how desperate and afraid the people of Saigon are at this point in the war. They've been living just fine for a long time while the war was going on, but once it moved into their space, they feel trapped and desperately want to escape the impending danger.

Mother hugs me,
hearts drumming
as one.

If the Communists
catch us fleeing
it's a million times worse
than staying at home. (2.8.2)

Our hearts are beating with you, Hà. This whole waiting-to-see-if-you-get-caught business is majorly stressful. Ugh.

In single files
they sponge-bathe
and relieve themselves
behind blanket curtains. (2.9.3)

War strips people of all sorts of basic dignities, like pooping in private instead of behind a curtain with a long line of people waiting just on the other side. You might be tempted to giggle at that sentence, but if you really think about, we think you'll agree it's a pretty terrible reality to be confronted with, day in and day out.

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