The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

by Thi Bui

Paperback, 2018





Harry N. Abrams (2018), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages


National bestseller 2017 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Finalist ABA Indies Introduce Winter / Spring 2017 Selection Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Spring 2017 Selection ALA 2018 Notable Books Selection An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family's journey from war-torn Vietnam, from debut author Thi Bui.   This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family's daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.   At the heart of Bui's story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent--the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.   In what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls "a book to break your heart and heal it," The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui's journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thelibraryladies
Stories of refugees and immigration are incredibly relevant these days. Between certain world leaders trying to impose travel bans, to the threats of building a wall all along a border, to the devastating refugee crisis being seen due to instability in Syria, the very thought of people finding a safe place to live, while leaving their home behind, has become incredibly politicized. When I first heard about “The Best We Could Do”, I knew that I needed to immediately get it on my request list so that I could read it as soon as it was available to me. It’s heartening to see that graphic novels are becoming more and more used to tell personal stories, and a story as personal as this one was only bolstered by the imagery that we found on the page. Oh boy was this a wonderful book.

And a very sad book as well. Thi Bui was born in Vietnam, just around the time that the Vietnam War was starting to wind down. Her family history is intwined within the stark differences in the Vietnamese society up to and during the war, as her mother was from the bourgeois class and her father was decidedly less well off. But this story isn’t just about a family trying to escape a violent and unsafe situation; it is also about a family that is forever affected by society around it, and a family trying to fit in in a new place that is completely new and different to them. By giving the context of her mother’s background, her father’s background, and the culture and society of Vietnam during their childhoods and her childhood as well, we get a story that is tragic, hopeful, devastating, and important all at once. She also does a very good job of showing how Western Imperialism and Colonialism, of course, had a large effect on how Vietnam dealt with a cultural conflict of the North versus the South. I really appreciated that she pointed out that for people in America during the war (those fighting it aside), it was more of a concept and something to support or speak out against. But for the Vietnamese, it was the life they were living every day, and that somehow kind of got lost in the narrative.

I also really liked the stories of her family, as imperfect and in some ways dysfunctional as it was. She has a very conflicted opinion of both her parents. Her father wasn’t a very good parent to her, and he wasn’t a very good husband to her mother either. But seeing his childhood that was filled with turmoil, poverty, instability, and broken family ties, we can completely understand why he turned into the man he became. We also see that her mother was in many ways a remarkable person who had ambitions and dreams, but then found herself in a marriage she wasn’t completely invested in, and with a family that, as cherished as they were, put an end to her ambitions, ambitions that absolutely could have been backed up by talent and know how. Bui contrasts her own journey into motherhood against the story of her own mother, and it is incredibly effective and bittersweet.

I think that what I found most effective about this story is that it has a powerful message, but it is wrapped in a family memoir. I was expecting far more about the fall of South Vietnam, and the journey out under cloak of darkness. But while that certainly does play a part, it’s really a story about a family, and how having to move from one life to another, whole new life in a whole new place caused damage that never quite repaired. Trauma, war, and displacement isn’t something that is forgotten just because you move to a new place and start a new life, and sometimes adapting to that new life can be a challenge in and of itself.

The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It is fairly simple at first glance, but images pop out and really take the reader’s gaze into them. I loved the colors and I loved how detailed it was, even though it looks like it’s fairly straight forward. I really cannot recommend “The Best We Could Do” enough. In a time where I think empathy and understanding are sorely needed when it comes to trying to understand the refugee experience, Thi Bui’s memoir will engage readers and show them how much is lost and how much is sacrificed just to stay alive. This is an incredibly important book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Bibliofemmes
Beautiful and powerful message for tolerance, empathy and understanding.
LibraryThing member seeword
Graphic memoir of a Vietnamese refugee. In 1978 the Bui family left Vietnam in a boat to Malaysia and a refugee camp. Eventually they made their way to relatives in Chicago and then to California. The story is told by one of the daughters who searches for her family identity. The graphic format works well for this story.

Advance review copy.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
When I first saw the cover and description for Bui Thi’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, I immediately added it to my list of future reads. It looked like the kind of graphic novel that would move me and leave me wanting more. And while there’s a good story in here somewhere, this book didn’t resonate with me like I’d hoped.

The story at the center of The Best We Could Do, the story of a family emigrating from Viet Nam, is a good story. It includes a lot of dramatic turns and is often heartfelt. The characters were interesting, especially those closest to the author-narrator. The art was only okay, but this isn’t ever a huge factor in my opinion of a graphic novel.

I think the problem I had connecting with the story had to do with presentation: the pacing, the chronology, the details shared and those left hidden. You can tell that this is a very, very personal book for the artist and I feel that perhaps Bui was too close to the story to have an appropriately objective view. The story was a part of Bui and where events were clear in her mind, the way they’re presented are unclear to the reader. On every page it was evident that the story meant something to this family, but it never meant anything to me, as the reader. An unfortunate result for a story with much potential.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Brainannex
I might be biased because I met the author pre-pub and she was telling how the story came about and some of the bumps in writing it so my experience might be different from other readers. Overall though, a moving story of one family and the sacrifices that had to be made to have their family survive.
LibraryThing member villemezbrown
A thick book with heavy themes that actually reads pretty quickly. The author effectively communicates the plight of Vietnam refugees that I remember hearing about on the news when I was a child.
LibraryThing member CaroPi
Is a beautiful story, that show us the search of understanding her family, the family that she create and what it mean to escape from a country stopped been her country.
I do not know much about Vietnam history or its war, but these book describes the points of view of the two sides and let me learn more about a country that lost almost everything.… (more)
LibraryThing member Well-ReadNeck
Graphic memoirs are quickly becoming a favorite genre for me. This beautifully drawn volume is one of the reasons why. Thi Bui tells her immigration story along with her family's backstory of a life in Vietnam during the last century and the civil war and it's resolution in that country. The story is not sugar coated, but tinged with an honest portrayal of how parents communicate (or don't) with their children. This memoir is personal and intimate, but manages to impart a great deal of history about Vietnam and it's history told from a point of view that is not American. That alone makes this a necessary and worthwhile read. But the element of this book that makes it an absolute must read for me is the author's telling each of her parent's stories separately. Illustrating as well as her artwork that we each have our own stories, even if they sometimes overlap with someone else's. Highly recommended.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
… (more)
LibraryThing member Iudita
Thi Bui has a wonderful family story but I think I would have enjoyed it more as a traditional book. The graphic novel format didn’t work for me in this case. I would have preferred more depth and detail.
LibraryThing member asawyer
A first graphic novel for me.... well done, but I’m still shaky on the format.
LibraryThing member untitled841
Beautiful graphic novel showing the life of a regular family immigration from Vietnam to America.
Quotes and snippets:
Family is now something I have created -- not just something I was born into.
Proximity and closeness are not the same.
I began to record our family history. Thinking that I could bridge the gap between the past and the present, I could fill the void between my parents and me.
I know this is caricture, but lacking memories of my own, I've come to depend on other people's stories.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Dreesie
This graphic novel is the all-school summer read at my son's high school. This is the first time they have done a graphic novel, at least since I have had a kid at the school. It frustrates me so much that a graphic novel is considered "summer reading"--however, my kid did read it willingly. In an afternoon. I am very curious if more kids/teachers/staff are doing the reading this year because it is so easy? I don't think there is any way to know.

In addition to being an easy read, this book is also excellent. Thi Bui developed her own illustration style just to complete this book. I love that it is 2 colors, an orange and black, which gives it both a newspaper comic feel and a plain old newspaper feel--which seems fitting for the amount of history included in these pages. It is very heartfelt, fascinating, and has a lot of history and love in the pages.

Bui describes her parents' lives before, during, and then after the Vietnam War, as the fled from Sai Gon to further south. How they taught school, had 6 children (4 surviving), and tried to make it during the war. And then how they fled. Bui herself was a toddler in the refugee camp in Malaysia, so has no real memory of the events. They made it to Indiana with the help of her mother's sister who was already there, and then made their way to LA. It wasn't until Bui herself had a child that their story really hit her--also, she began to understand why her father was as difficult as he was, and made her wonder how her own experiences might be passed on in actions to her son.
… (more)
LibraryThing member questbird
A Vietnamese family escapes to the USA after the Vietnam War. Nice artwork.
LibraryThing member emeraldreverie
An excellent autobio family exploration. Especially as someone asking similar questions due to having a child. Really well constructed, with so much frank pain, naked historical horror and the ramifications. Art is spare but visceral.
LibraryThing member livingtech
Poignant and interesting.
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
This book is San Francisco’s One City One Book for summer 2018 and I wanted to read it during this period. It’s a fast read and I was able to read it in a couple of days.

It’s a wonderful graphic biography book and interesting history book, and a fabulous book about parents & children and relationships, and trauma.

I’m always in awe of people who can take their pain and experiences and feelings and create writing/art and here there are both. For most of the book I particularly enjoyed the text, even though the pictures were necessary and also wonderful. The one set of photos included deeply touched me.

I got an excellent feel for each of her parents and a really good sense of her, a bit less so of her siblings and more distant relatives and others, but the entire account was very satisfying. I also got a feel for daily life in various times and places. It’s a terrific refugee story, and given what’s going on in the U.S. these days with immigrants I hope that at least some people in power will read it.

The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War was one of the first issues for which I protested and was an activist but reading the viewpoints presented here I learned so much more than I could have imagined I would, from the point of the Vietnamese war would continue whether the U.S. was there or not, yes of course, and also other things were said that made me think. I loved it.

4-1/2 stars
… (more)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

336 p.; 6.5 inches


1419718789 / 9781419718786


Page: 0.3645 seconds