Every year, there are books that simply get away from me, and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui was certainly one of them for 2017. I am always on the lookout for more graphic novels, or in this case graphic memoirs, to read and make space for on this blog. It is a format I would like to become more familiar with, and I always get excited whenever I do find one I can fit in. Today's selection was no exception as I was excited to explore Bui's story as an immigrant from Vietnam attempting to find her place, along with her family, here in the United States.
Genre, Themes, History: As mentioned, this is a memoir presented in the graphic novel format. Bui tells the story of her parents and their journey from war-torn Vietnam, to their new lives in California. The story actually opens up as Bui prepares to give birth to her son, with her mother and her husband by her side. Suddenly she is struck with the sense of now being the parent, even though she still feels like the child who came to America so many years ago. Bui then moves backwards, beginning with her younger brother, and talks about the birth of all of her siblings, even the two sisters that did not survive. She then jumps to when her father was a young man in Vietnam, and begins to tell the complete story: how he grew up in a country constantly in turmoil; how he ended up being raised by his grandfather; how he met Bui's mother; and ultimately, how they got themselves and their four children to America. Bui did not initially choose the graphic novel format. When she first wrote the story down she felt it to be too academic. She wanted to present a history that was relatable and not oversimplified. Though choosing the graphic novel format meant having to learn a completely different medium, she pushed forward anyway. The final product is more than a story about immigration. It is about Vietnam; the importance of home; the importance of family; the expectations we put on ourselves and each other; and what it means to sacrifice for those we love.
My Verdict: This is everything I hoped it would be. It is a moving and intriguing story that beautifully, and sometimes tragically, details the events that led Bui to write this memoir. The narrative is easy to follow, and the art gives the book a somber feeling, even on the better moments of the family's history. And while Bui tells her family's story, she also talks about how difficult even attempting such a thing can be. Talking to each parent separately as well as together, Bui ran into several challenges when trying to put the whole story together. Admitting to even those trials lends the whole thing a sense of honesty that is necessary in a book like this. It is certainly a different approach to this type of story and Bui pulls it off extremely well.
Favorite Moment: When Bui's mother and father are able to use their limited English to help other refugees make their way through the airport.
Recommended Reading: For more graphic novel goodness, I recommend the adaptation of the novel Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.