The Best We Could Do Summary

The Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir by Thi Bui published in 2017. In the book, Bui tells the story of how her family came to the United States from Vietnam.

  • Thi Bui recalls the birth of her son in 2005. She then begins to tell her own parents' stories.
  • Thi's parents grew up in Vietnam. After the war, they fled to the United States with young Thi and her siblings, eventually settling in California.
  • Bui hopes that telling her family's story will help give her young son a chance to be free from the trauma of the past.

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

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The Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir by Vietnamese American cartoonist Thi Bui, published in 2017. The book explores Thi’s experience as a first-time parent, as well as her family’s history in Vietnam and, after the Vietnam War, as immigrants to the US. While working on the book as a graduate student at New York University, Thi visited Vietnam and interviewed her parents, asking to hear stories from their lives. The memoir examines parenthood and family, the long-lasting effects of war on families and children, and the difficulties of immigration, diaspora, displacement, and cultural assimilation.

Plot Summary

Thi Bui begins her memoir with the birth of her first child, a son, in New York City in 2005. From there, she begins to tell her family’s story, filling in the gaps in her own knowledge and memory and interweaving her family history with the history of Vietnam. Thi learns that her parents, called Ma and Bo, led very different early lives—while Ma grew up in relative wealth and privilege in the southern Vietnamese city of Nha Trang, supported by loving parents and attending French schools, Bo grew up in northern Vietnam, where he was abandoned by an abusive father who joined Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist liberation movement, the Viet Minh. Bo and his grandparents, who raised him after his father’s departure, struggled for survival in the chaotic wake of World War II, when Vietnam was occupied by the French and Japanese. He feared what would happen were a communist regime to take over, witnessed the execution of political prisoners, and at one point, narrowly escaped being executed himself. From his stories, Bui gains a new understanding of her father’s sometimes frightening moods.

Ma and Bo met at a teacher’s college in southern Vietnam and eventually graduated and married. At the time, Vietnam had freed itself from French control, but a new conflict was looming in the form of civil war between North and South Vietnam. In 1955, the war officially began, and the US, eager to fight communism wherever it took hold, quickly joined South Vietnam in fighting against the communist North.

In the late 1970s, when the North had finally won the war, Bo and a pregnant Ma fled South Vietnam with the young Thi and her older sisters, Lan and Bich. They became one family among the thousands known as “boat people,” South Asian refugees forced to make a dangerous sea journey away from an equally dangerous homeland. Thi describes how her book is “tracing our journey in reverse . . . over the ocean . . . through the war, seeking an origin story, that will set everything right.”

After a few months in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where Thi's brother, Tam, was born, the family immigrated to the US, where they had relatives in Chicago, and eventually moved to San Diego. Together they learned to adapt to their new lives, language, and home—an easier process for Thi and her siblings than for their parents, whose teaching qualifications weren’t recognized in the US and who studied while working minimum-wage jobs and mourning the loss of two children who had died in infancy.

Thi Bui ends her memoir contemplating her new role as a mother and the future she wants to provide for her son. She recognizes that the pain endured by her family has shaped her, and she hopes that by telling their story, she can free her son from the weight of inherited trauma.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828

Author: Thi Bui (b. 1975)

Publisher: Abrams ComicArts (New York). Illustrated. 336 pp.

Type of work: Graphic novel, memoir

Time: 1950s–present day

Locales: Vietnam, the United States

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do explores both her family’s immigration story and her own life as a mother.

Principal personages

Thi Bui, the author

, her mother

Bố, her father

In her graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, artist Thi Bui recounts her family’s immigration story from a fresh perspective after becoming a mother. Thi Bui’s motherhood complicates and deepens her view of her parents, who, in 1978, made the difficult and dangerous decision to flee Vietnam for the United States. Born months before the end of the Vietnam War, she was three years old at the time, but she remembers the arduous journey. The family traveled first by a wooden boat, which her father was unexpectedly called upon to captain. Thi Bui, her mother, siblings, and others hid in the darkened hull. Their experience places them among the famous “boat people,” who fled Vietnam by sea during these years. Thi Bui’s mother, Má, who was eight months pregnant, gave birth to her sixth child after the family docked at a refugee camp in Malaysia. From Malaysia, they traveled to Indiana and stayed with family, before settling in San Diego, California, where Thi Bui and her brother and sisters struggled to fit in as Americans.

Thi Bui also recounts the very different childhood experiences of her parents, who grew up in Vietnam in the 1950s. Her difficulty in obtaining this information becomes a part of the book, which depicts, on one page, a grown Thi Bui sitting at a table with her father as a child, gently coaxing him to speak. The book’s arc is similarly fragmented, splicing past and present in unusual ways that are both visual and narrative. Thi Bui writes in the preface that the book, begun as an oral history project while she was in graduate school, took her nearly fifteen years to complete. This time for rumination is evident in the depth of her research and the profound, hard-won truths she uncovers about her own parents and families in general. The Best We Could Do is about refugees and the physical and emotional toll of immigration, but it is, at its core, a book about parents and children, and how these relationships, for better or worse, shape who people are.

Thi Bui trained as an arts educator, and as a graduate student at New York University, she compiled an oral history of her family punctuated by drawings and photographs. She wanted to explore that history further but worried that her initial project was too academic. Inspired by classic graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), about the author’s father, a Holocaust survivor, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000–2001), about the author’s coming-of-age during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Thi Bui set out to make her family history into a comic. She had never drawn comics before, and she recalls producing her first clumsy pages in 2005. Over the course of the next ten years, she became a comic artist while creating this book. One working title was “Refugee Reflex,” a self-developed concept she explores in the book, but as she wrote and drew, working simultaneously as a schoolteacher at an alternative public high school for immigrants in Oakland, California, her own life continued to unfold. She had become a mother, and she began caring for her aging parents. These milestones changed the way she thought about family, and by extension, her book. In 2011, she writes, “I realized that the book was about parents and children, and it became The Best We Could Do.” It was published in early 2017, the same year she illustrated the children’s book A Different Pond, by Bao Phi.

The book begins in the thick of Thi Bui’s own difficult labor in 2005. The process is depicted in a gruesome array of surgical instruments and needles, and doctors speaking babble. Thi Bui wants to refuse drugs but is too exhausted to intervene in the emergency plan the doctors have undertaken. Má is in the waiting room, too nervous to take part. After giving birth, there is more confusion. Why won’t her baby boy eat? Why is the diaper sticking to his skin—is that normal? However, immediate concerns soon give way to a striking realization: “Family is now something I have created,” she writes, “and not just something I was born into.” She illustrates the pain and exhaustion of childbirth to convey the surprise of discovering that what comes after, a child’s life, is much harder.

In the book, the birth of Thi Bui’s son leads her to consider her own upbringing. The Best We Could Do moves intuitively, toggling between past and present, sometimes in a single frame. The second chapter—“Rewind, Reverse”—begins with Thi Bui moving to New York for college. She recalls the terse response she received from her mother after admitting that she was moving in with her boyfriend. Thi Bui’s older sister, Bích, had not been so lucky. When Má discovered that Bích had a boyfriend (by reading her diary), the fallout was devastating. Bích ran away from home, and Má attempted suicide. It is significant, though not entirely clear why, that Thi Bui begins with this disturbing episode, one that she writes still makes her angry though all parties have since reconciled. “I have figured out, more or less, how to raise my little family,” she writes, “but it’s being both a parent and a child, without acting like a child, that eludes me.”

One of the most remarkable things about The Best We Could Do is Thi Bui’s candor. Her airing of dirty laundry, so to speak, is made all the more immediate—and her family members made all the more vulnerable—by her drawings, which are revealing in their simplicity. In his review of the book for Vulture, Abraham Riesman wrote that Thi Bui’s “minimalism packs an emotional wallop.” He went on to make an illuminating reference to cartoonist and cartoon theorist Scott McCloud, who devised a concept called “masking,” which describes how a lack of detail in a drawing can often be more emotionally affecting to a reader than a drawing with more detail. To paraphrase McCloud, a detailed drawing of a face makes a comic reader an observer of the action on the page; a minimalist drawing of a face requires a comic reader to use their imagination. The reader thus participates in the character’s actions and enters their emotional sphere.

A similar principle is at play in the traditional use of masks in theater. When the details of a face are obscured, viewers fill in the gaps with pieces of themselves. Fittingly, Thi Bui favors a sparse palette. Her figures, drawn in black ink, emerge from burnt orange wash as if out of the fog of the past. Additionally, when discussing her family’s journey, she includes a page that combines drawings of anonymous refugees with the actual photographs of herself, her parents, and her sisters taken as they were being processed after reaching the refugee camp in Malaysia, which works effectively alongside her artwork to emphasize that this is a true story.

Thi Bui is propelled into her family history by an unexpected loneliness. After the birth of her son, she and her husband move to California to be closer to her parents. Her brother and sisters all live nearby. It should be an ideal situation, she writes, but her relationship with her parents is unexpectedly inert. “How did we get to such a lonely place?” she asks. “We live so close to each other and yet feel so far apart.” To explore this issue and attempt to find an answer, she delves into her past. When Thi Bui was a young child, while Má was at work and her sisters were at school, she and her younger brother spent their days in a dark apartment in the care of their superstitious and troubled father, Bố, who told them frightening stories about demons and the neighbors across the street. Their memories from that period are colored by fear. Her reconstruction of her life at such a young age is built on tiny, ingenious details such as the blur of the car headlights as Bố drives the family home drunk and a favorite dream in which their apartment is filled with water and, unencumbered, she swims all the way through it. As an adult, she tries to understand why her father behaved this way. Did he not realize that he terrified his children? Growing up, she came to understand that his life was shaped by war. Unlike Má, the daughter of a civil servant, he knew extreme poverty and once nearly died hiding in an underground cavern while the French raided his village. Bố used to tell her that he had no parents, but when she figured out the right questions to ask about his past, she writes, “the stories poured forth with no beginning or end.” Thi Bui explores her parents’ stories in these short, evocative vignettes, depicting lives impeded by tragedy and destruction but also peppered with joy.

The Best We Could Do was enthusiastically embraced by reviewers when it was published in 2017. Riesman noted its timely completion. For its deeply humane depiction of the immigrant experience, he deemed it “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era.” Other critics praised Thi Bui’s ability to embrace the complexity of her family story. “In this mélange of comedy and tragedy, family love and brokenness, she finds beauty,” a reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote in the publication’s starred review. The Best We Could Do, Laurie Hertzel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote, describes Thi Bui’s reckoning with her parents as people “who have endured unimaginable hardship and are doing the best they can. And yet the story is devoid of sentimentality.” The graphic memoir even won an endorsement from Pulitzer Prize–winning author Việt Thanh Nguyễn, who described it as “a book to break your heart and heal it.”

Review Sources

  • Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. Publishers Weekly, 5 Dec. 2016, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4197-1877-9. Accessed 11 Jan. 2018.
  • Hertzel, Laurie. Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. Star Tribune [Minneapolis, MN], 4 Sept. 2017, www.startribune.com/review-the-best-we-could-do-by-thi-bui/442500283. Accessed 11 Jan. 2018.
  • Kirby, Robert. Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. The Comics Journal, 9 Mar. 2017, www.tcj.com/reviews/the-best-we-could-do. Accessed 11 Jan. 2018.
  • Riesman, Abraham. “Life as a Refugee Is Explored in the Stunning Comics Memoir The Best We Could Do.” Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. Vulture, 7 Mar. 2017, www.vulture.com/2017/03/thi-bui-best-we-could-do-refugee-comic.html. Accessed 11 Jan. 2018.
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