The Best That We Could Do by Thi Bui
Abrams ComicArts, 2017; 330 pp
Reviewed by Britny Brooks
“Má leaves me but I’m not alone, and a terrifying thought creeps into my head. Family is now something I have created and not just something I was born into.” (21)
A beautifully illustrated memoir, The Best That We Could Do follows author Thi Bui as she adjusts to life as a first time mother, by trying to understand the the lives of her parents who grew up in Vietnam and raised a family in the midst of the Vietnam War, before escaping after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s to start a new life in the United States. Full of honest emotion and empathy, Bui navigates the grey-area of being both a child and a parent by delving into the past and examining the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
This is an incredibly timely story and one that is both personal and universal at the same time. Bui’s use of secondary sources along with the interviews that she did with her parents bring a vibrancy, depth, and nuance to her illustrations as she follows her parents through their past. The palate of blacks, greys, and rusty salmon give each panel an earthiness and casts a unique sepia over the whole story as Bui retells not only her parents’ stories, but her own journey. Bui also does an incredible job of showing the vibrant life and history of Vietnam, which is often sterilized or brushed over in US history books, as well as showing with meticulous detail and gorgeous imagery the emotional and relational effects the war had on her family. Bui’s story at first glance is a powerful immigrant story, but wrapped in each of the ten chapters is a nuanced exploration of identity, displacement and assimilation, race, decolonization, political and historical movements and their impact on people, and the worry of the history that you are passing on to your children.
The Best That We Could Do takes every advantage of the graphic novel format and captivates you with every page and panel, so that it is almost impossible to imagine this story being told any other way. This is a book that everyone needs to read, especially in this time when immigration and issues revolving around it are constantly in the headlines. Sometimes all it takes is a reminder that we all have fears, hopes, dreams, families, and histories, and that we all need to let each other be not what we want them to be “but someone independent, self-determining, and free.”