In her book Why Comics? Hillary Chute states flatly that the foundation of comics is in disaster—Spiegelman’s Holocaust, Jimmy Corrigan’s family, the destruction of Krypton. In Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, disaster is foundational and unavoidable as well, but is also intensely personal. We can see that what the world sees as Disaster and History, individual families see as Life. An important addition to the graphic memoir genre, this book tells its story of birth, war, trauma, alienation, and love entirely in personal terms. It grounds the overwhelming in the relatable, making what could be an alien story universal, and salvaging a dark history with the insights that only close family can provide.

The Best We Could Do is a family memoir, describing how writer/artist Bui’s family came to the United States soon after the end of the Vietnam War. In the manner of Spiegelman’s Maus, this book tells Bui’s parents’ stories and intermingles their traumatic histories with Bui’s and her sisters’ life in America. Unlike Maus, this is not a sardonic and self-effacing graphic memoir. It is instead poetic, slow-moving, nuanced, and compassionate. There’s a sadness throughout, the kind of sorrow that comes from recognizing parents as human beings, and from hearing stories that we know we cannot fully understand.

Bui’s father, for example, starts out as an unsympathetic character—he could easily be dismissed as a man who accidentally terrorized his children and emotionally abandoned his wife. However, Bui understands her father as she explores his story, what he has survived and the damage it’s done to his thoughts and emotions. As Bui’s sympathy for and understanding of the man who raised her increases, so does our own. He is a man who faced betrayal throughout his childhood, had unlikely good fortune, but was surrounded by instability—his father was a con artist, his mother born into wealth. He got into politics and found himself on the losing side of a war, saw his mother thrown into the street to starve, and learned that his father—who thrived in the new Communist regime—would not stick his neck out to save his son or grandchild. After the crisis had passed, the traumas remained. By his own admission, even as an old man, Bui’s father will always be something of a wounded child. It’s a painful truth, one that allows Bui’s father to start to forgive himself for his shortcomings as a husband and father, and allows Bui to do the same.

Bui’s mother’s story unfolds with similar complexity and richness—a brilliant student, she attended a French language school and found her voice on the right side of history but the wrong side of political reality. Her life was changed by pregnancy and by war, and by the dissolution of the aristocratic reality she grew up in and learned to despise even as she relied on it. A quiet fighter, Bui’s mother has our sympathy from the start; it’s respect we gain for her rather than affection. Her own experiences left her afraid, unable to stay through her granddaughter’s delivery as it forces her to recall her own pregnancies, a child lost, a fear that lingers through the rest of her life.

2017 was a big year for Bui; she won the Caldecott Medal for her children’s book, A Different Pond, and released The Best We Could Do to critical acclaim. At 42 this is her first graphic novel, and like some other great graphic works—Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Spiegelman’s Maus—it has taken her more than a decade to complete, and the results are as polished as you might hope. Bui favors gorgeous inks, reminiscent of Chinese ink painting. Her characters are a blend of cartoonish realism, capable of creating the impression of an emotionally complex person—the joy in children’s faces, their parents’ haunted eyes—in just a few lines.

Furthermore, these cartoons are recognizable as portraits of real people, matched to photographs within the book. The book is colored only with shaded oranges and blues, giving the entire work the feel of a sepia-toned photo album, most of its details realistic with a few outrageous features, like a framed picture of a human skull resting behind barbed wire adorning a suburban home’s wall. This all comes together as a cohesive whole, beautiful and fragile and sad. Bui conveys a family’s journey that was heroic and imperfect, truly the best they could do. A personal but universal story, well told and brilliantly illuminated. If it has any shortcomings, it’s only in its relatively sparse use of humor, even for a genre not known for jokes. Even so, this book is an extraordinary accomplishment and is essential reading for fans of literary comics.

The Best We Could Do is appropriate for high school, public, and academic library collections. There is some nudity and implied violence that will probably keep it out of younger school libraries. Its blending of literary and artistic achievement with the history of Vietnam—poorly understood in the U.S. despite its importance to our own recent history—marks this as a major work of personal nonfiction, and Bui’s accomplishments as an artist and storyteller distinguish her as a major talent. Also, as a story about refugees, this graphic adds a badly needed human perspective to an often impersonal—and growing—international crisis that U.S. policy has placed itself at the center of. If you are thinking about adding this book to your collection, your timing couldn’t be better.

The Best We Could Do 
By Thi Bui
ISBN: 9781419718786
Harry N. Abrams, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)

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Character Traits: Vietnamese,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

  • Matt

    Past Reviewer

    Matthew Z. Wood has over a decade’s experience in public and academic libraries, and has worked everything from IT to Reference Desks, from the Reserve Room to Acquisitions. He received his Master’s in Library Science from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in 2011. He has worked at the North Carolina State University’s D.H. Hill Library, and the Durham County Library in Durham, NC and is currently a Writing Trainer for Comic Book Resources and Valnet. Working with his partners, David Milloway and Stephanie Freese, Mr. Wood co-created the webcomics “The Dada Detective” and “Chocolypse Now!” Their collection “The Dada Alphabet” was shortlisted for the Lulu Blooker Prize; the team received a Nerdlinger Award in 2008. Though a child of the Carolinas, Mister Wood resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife and daughter; they have dinner with his in-laws every Sunday. A church-goer but not an evangelist, a practicing martial artist for more than 30 years (Southern Chinese kung fu and T'ai Chi Chuan) but not a fighter, he has loved comics his entire life. Most recently, he has contributed articles to Dr. Sheena Howard’s Encyclopedia of Black Comics and in August of 2018 his first book-- Comic Book Collections and Programming, A Practical Guide for Librarians-- was published by Rowman and Littlefield. He writes under the name The Stupid Philosopher at

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