I will admit that I haven't read many 'immigrant experience' stories, but this one really got me. I also don't typically love journal entry style narratives, but it totally works here. It felt absolutely true in every sense of the word. Perhaps it's because the author drew from her real-life experiences, but the narrator, ten year old Vietnamese immigrant Hà, truly lives and breathes. And what is even more surprising, so do all the other characters.
I kept thinking of how the brothers in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (a *very* good novel) emerge as one indistinct blob of 'brotherliness'. Here each of Hà's three brothers is vivid and totally distinct - sensitive animal-lover Khoi, tough guy Vu, and clever pragmatic Quang. And for such a short novel there are many more truly memorable characters. Most notably, of course, is Hà's mother - a woman who is nearly crushed by her personal losses and heartbreak. And yet she manages to find reserves of wisdom and patience as her children find their way in a foreign land. I am always amazed when a children's novel not only includes the parent in the narrative, but imbues them with actual human strengths and weaknesses. Even the Americans Hà encounters have individual personalities!
Somewhere along the way I had missed that this novel was written in verse. And even when I started it I wondered a little if something was wrong with the formatting on my Kindle. Yes, I'm that sophisticated of a reader. But once I fell into the rhythm of the poetry and the beauty of the story I feel absolutely head over heels in love. I laughed, I cried. Trite but true. I cried over Khoi's chicken and Mrs. Washington's unflagging kindness. I cried over how the language barrier made clever Hà feel like the stupidest kid in the world. But then I laughed as Hà stumbled and grumbled her way through the idiosyncrasies of the English language. And of course, I completely lost it when Hà finally stood up to her tormentor - calling him a doo doo face (Đu đủ being the Vietnamese word for Papaya). In the end I really wanted more! But I also think Lai paced and ended this novel absolutely perfectly. All in all, a completely delightful and utterly satisfying read!