Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

The Best We Could Do is an engrossing graphic memoir. Thi Bui tells the story of her family’s move from Viet Nam to the U.S. in illustrated comic form. Her drawings and the words that accompany them will help any reader understand the Viet Nam War and immigrant assimilation in the U.S. more than any history book could possibly hope to do. Bui’s illustrations and her fears about having her own child embed the reader into her life. In 2005 when Bui’s son was born she began to think more about her family and their story. As she lay in her hospital bed gazing at her son she pondered, “FAMILY is now something I have created – and not just something I was born into. The responsibility is immense. A wave of empathy for my mother washed over me.”  Later she realized “Being my father’s child, I, too, was a product of war . . . and being my mother’s child, I could never measure up to her. .  . But maybe being their child simply means that I will always feel the weight of their past.” 

Bui shares her fear that she will “pass along some gene for sorrow.” Then she creates a space for readers to see the hope that comes with the birth of a child. She allows readers to accompany her on her journey to assimilation, love, and parenthood. Bui never tells us what we should think about her life; instead, she makes us a part of her passage. 

Bui uses humor with a deft hand. When her father, Bô, arrives in the U.S., a volunteer from U.S. Catholic Charities drives him from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to his family in nearby Hammond, Indiana. A panel shows the two sitting on the expressway as Bô gazes out and asks “Why is it so ugly here?” Bui’s illustration of winter’s exposure of the industrial Midwest is apt as is her panel of the Hammond home where her family first lived in the U.S. Bui captures the stark reality of barren trees and snow-covered sidewalks alongside small houses set inside chain link fences that encompasses much of Hammond and industrial cities like it. Her single panel shows how immigrants arriving from tropical climes might feel when seeing dirty snow and no vegetation. 

“Nothing that happened to me makes me special. But my life is a gift that is too great, a debt I can never repay.”  However, Bui does repay that debt by using her talents: her gift of illustration and her gift of using just the right words to share her story. Readers will also see that Bui’s day job as a public school teacher helps her teach her readers about Viet Nam, its people, and its history in a way we may never have understood it previously. I heartily echo Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen’s observation. This is “a book to break your heart and heal it.”

Summing it Up: Thi Bui’s arresting images and her clear words offer a portrait of motherhood and of the price we all pay for war. The Best We Could Do is a powerful meditation on finding meaning in the life we’ve been given. Everyone should read this book and share it. Prospective readers should visit the publisher’s site to inhale Bui’s powerful two-color images.

Note: The Best We Could Do is adult nonfiction, but if I were teaching the Viet Nam War to students ages 14 and older, I’d make this my text.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Five Star, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: March 7, 2917
Author/Illustrator Website:
Interview with the Author: NBC News:


Syllabus for a class on Asian-American graphic narratives at Queens College, CUNY with links to interviews and reviews:

What Others are Saying:

Thi Bui’s stark, compelling memoir is about an ordinary family, but her story delivers the painful truth that most Vietnamese of the 20th century know in an utterly personal fashion — that history is found in the marrow of one’s bones, ready to be passed on through blood, through generations, through feelings. A book to break your heart and heal it. — Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist

No comments:

Post a Comment