Book Review: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

It’s interesting that I came across this graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, shortly after reading George Takei’s graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. The authors of both books are Asian Americans, and both books deal with traumas that their families had to undergo while the writers were children. In Takei’s case, it was the forced imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, while in Thi Bui’s case it was escape from Vietnam shortly after the end of the war.

The Best We Could Do begins as the author is about to give birth to her first child. From that point she reminisces about the births of her brothers and sisters and her own birth. She traces the stories of her parents as they are brought up in Vietnam under the French. Her father is raised in relative poverty and loneliness, while her mother is born to an elite family. As they grow up, the country changes around them. It divides into northern and southern portions, and ideologies split between communists and non-communists.

Both of Bui’s parents become teachers, and for a time they do well in South Vietnam on their two salaries. However, inflation soars as the United States becomes more involved and the war intensifies. The family lives in penury. They never know when they might be called out by secret police. In desperation, they search for passage on a boat on which they can escape to another country.

The boat that the family eventually ships out on is small, filthy, and overcrowded. Eventually Nam, Bui’s father, is selected as pilot due to his intelligence and education, and with the help of a compass he successfully navigates the boat out into international waters and then safely to Malaysia.

The family spends time in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Soon, though, thanks to the help of Bui’s aunt in Indiana, they are accepted as refugees to the United States. Bui’s mother with her four children flies on ahead while her father is in temporary quarantine because of scars on his lungs from an old case of tuberculosis. He joins them soon afterwards.

Bui’s parents and siblings don’t do well in the intense cold of the winters in the Midwest, so the family relocates to California where the weather is warmer. There they start a new life in their own home.

The book closes where it began, in the hospital where Bui is giving birth. After her baby arrives, she wants to nurse him, but he develops jaundice and has to stay in the hospital after she is released. She and her husband rent a room across the street and wake up every ninety minutes to walk over to the hospital so she can give milk to her son. She contemplates the importance of the relationship between parents and their children and considers the awesome responsibility of parenthood.

This book is very well written and well illustrated. The story is fascinating. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a full-length words-only memoir by Bui. However, the graphic memoir is the art form she has chosen in which to present her tale, and it works well in this instance. The vivid, moody illustrations add depth to this heartfelt, sometimes joyous, and sometimes frightening story of a family from one world relocating and establishing a new life in another.

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