by Thanhha Lai
HarperCollins, 2011. 262 pgs. Fiction.
When most Americans hear the word "Tet," they will think of the Tet Offensive when Communist North Vietnam mounted major attacks against South Vietnam. But to Kim Ha, Tet is the Vietnamese New Year when her family eats "sugary lotus seeds and glutinous rice cakes," and everyone wears new clothes. As this story begins, Ha is nurturing a papaya tree and hoping with the rest of her family for the return of her father, who has been captured by the Communists. Instead, Ha's family is forced to flee the country on a crowded boat, eventually resettling in Alabama with a nice man and his cranky wife as sponsors, where they must all learned to eat things that don't taste good to them and seem dumb while learning a very difficult new language. Not to mention the bullies. Thanhha Lai has used her own childhood experiences as the basis of this lyrical free-verse novel about refugees. Ha's longing for her homeland, for her father who will likely never return, for fish sauce and sticky rice, and for the papaya she loved and whose fruit she will never taste remind us that no matter one's circumstances, home is home and one may live safely and peacefully elsewhere, but always in exile. A lovely book and an ENC (early Newbery contender).