The Best We Could Do

By Thi Bui

Abrams, 2017

336 pages

Last August, I took a business trip to San Francisco for a conference I attend every year. On the final day, I had several hours post-conference to myself, so I took some time to walk down to the old ferry building and visit the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge was magical and awe-inspiring, but that’s actually not where this essay starts. It starts in the ferry building, where I found my way into Book Passage, a locally owned bookstore with one of the best collections of girl-power books I’ve ever seen.

What I especially loved about these titles was the fact that they weren’t segregated into an “Empowering Books for Girls” ghetto. They permeated every section of the store, where any kind of reader might come across them. Someone apparently shares my belief that empowering books about girls should be found and read by everyone.

One of the books I came across was Thi Bui’s “illustrated memoir,” The Best We Could Do. I love literary graphic novels and have recently become more interested in memoirs, especially those written by ordinary women facing unusual circumstances. So I added it to my “want to read” list and checked it out of the library a few months later.

Though Bui calls her book a memoir, that really only covers half the story. The rest is a family history – in particular, the history of her parents’ childhoods, how they intersected with the early-20th-century political turmoil in Vietnam, and how the family came to the U.S. as refugees when Bui was very young.

Bui says in her preface that producing her book was a kind of therapy, an effort to process some of the trauma of her own childhood and better understand her parents and their roots. Though she technically started the book in 2002, it took on real focus in 2005, after she became a mother.

Though the book is clearly an exercise in digesting her own and her family’s past, Bui walks the therapy tightrope with grace. Nothing is maudlin; instead, it’s earthy and honest, raw and genuine. Bui’s format – black, cream, and terra-cotta-colored illustrations punctuated by brief dialogue and sparely elegant narration – adds to the feeling that the story is simultaneously historical and very much part of the present. I have never seen faces rendered so expressively and personally in a comic.

Bui has a rocky relationship with her father, who grew up poor and abused and spent his childhood fleeing political violence. As a result, he grew into a controlling and sometimes violent husband and father who struggled to form a meaningful connection with his children.

Bui’s mother is an entirely different figure. Born wealthy and educated at Vietnam’s best French schools, she had ambitions of a career and independent life. She tells Bui that she married her husband because he was very ill, and she just wanted to provide some comfort for a friend she thought was likely to die young. When he survived, she found herself living a life she never wanted: fleeing with him from place to place, poor, and caring for four small children (two others died at birth and in infancy, respectively).

Nevertheless, Bui paints her as attentive and warm, the silk cord loosely holding a fragile family together. At times, Bui even imbues her with superhuman qualities, as when she gives birth in an isolated midwife’s hut outside a Malaysian refugee camp. She is the one who leads – physically, emotionally, and financially – as the family carves out a life for itself in the U.S.

Then there is Bui, who appears in her own book less than you might expect, given its nature as a memoir. She comes across as somewhat broken, frightened by the potential impact on her own small family of her violent and catastrophic past. Yet she’s determined to understand, to heal, and to move forward with hope. Some of the same resolve comes through in her portrait of her older sisters, who get limited page time but clearly make tremendous strides in building healthy, secure, fulfilling lives for themselves (and, later, for their families).

I think the inspirational element of this book comes through in its title. Not everyone has the privilege of growing up safe, well-fed, and unconditionally loved. Sometimes healing has to happen in small steps, each generation making a little more progress than the one before. But when women, mothers, and wives don’t give up – when they do “the best we could do” – they put themselves and their families on the path to wholeness.

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