The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

Some books need to be written to allow people the ability to safely experience things that they would otherwise might not ever feel or experience. Reading books and experiencing the lives of well-developed characters help foster the mental calisthenics for the people you meet day-to-day. As an example, we have frequent conversations on immigration as a policy, but not as commonly do we have conversations about the emotional devastation and trauma that comes with choosing to leave for a new country. Thi Bui’s debut graphic novel memoir, The Best We Can Do,  in its firsthand account of her family’s journey from Vietnam into the United States, gives the reader that space to experience the anguish of immigration, first from North Vietnam to the South, then into refugee camps, before finally settling into the United States. This graphic novel personalizes the multi-generational violent political upheaval of Vietnam that led to the Vietnamese diaspora into the United States.

Drawn in black with sepia toned ink washes, this graphic novel jumps around gracefully between a timespan of 50 years into the history of Vietnam. The book covers the horrible effects of 100 years of French colonial rule, of Japanese occupation during World War II and the Vietnam War, by intimately following Bui’s great grandparents onwards as they handle raising a family and growing up in times of war. The book opens with the birth of Bui’s first son and hopscotches between the birth of her father, mother and her siblings. Propaganda and the effects of other government policies are shown in the story as real life decisions the family must make and how the resulting consequences affect everyone. For example, everyday goods brought over for American servicemen got sold into the black market. Another vignette is the regular occurrence during the war of surveillance and snitching; schoolchildren were encouraged to snitch on their parents for having the wrong books at home. Bui’s immigration experience in the United States shows the confusion of living in a new culture as a young girl. Throughout the story, each time the family moves, it is to escape ever harrowing violence and hardships.

This book is recommended for older teens and adults who are looking for strong women characters that give a different take to stories about war, especially the Vietnam war. For those interested in the multigenerational psychological trauma that comes from war, this book shows most tellingly through Bui’s father of how hunger, lack of love and torture come through in how parents interact with their children. This is a heartfelt memoir that strikes deep in its telling of the Vietnamese American immigration experience.