I don’t think of myself as a sentimental reader although there is a good chance that I am. I am always more clear about other people’s motives than I am about my own. I can clearly see when my friend is making a HUGE mistake or when my kids are being so prideful that it is going to come back and bite them in the butt. That kind of clarity is nearly impossible for me to glean from my own psyche.
That sense of veiled motived, self delusion, and search for clarity is what this book brings with a gentle beauty that I found … almost painful to read.
Thi Bui, according to the book jacket, was a child when she and her family immigrated from Vietnam to America. She now teaches and lives in Berkley, CA with her husband, son and her mother. In between those two lines of text lay a story of immigration that spans continents, wars, and generations.
Before talking directly about The Best We Could Do I want to take a moment and talk about the graphic novel as a form. There are some in my field of study who don’t like the term. Some consider the term an unnecessary separator that takes away from the legitimacy of comics. Like using the work film instead of movie in order to show how sophisticated you are. The term may have started that way. It may have been meant as a way to distance authors from comic books. I don’t doubt any of that, but for me a graphic novels is a long form comic narrative that stands alone and apart – whole unto itself. With publishers discovering the marketplace, and readership growing I worry that graphic novels are being overtaken in the by comic book arcs and series. But, then, I see books like this and I don’t have to worry much anymore. As long as there are memoirs to be told, graphic novels will continue to be written and read.
The Best We Could Do opens with Thi Bui in labor in New York. There is a bravery to this opening that I cannot overstate – think about it. The first time I meet the protagonist she is grunting, afraid, and vulnerable. She is being told what to do and how to do it by the hospital staff and trying to hold onto her adulthood, she wants to be in control of what happens to her body and to her baby. This is the perfect metaphor for the rest of the book – people trying desperately to be controlling agents in their own lives – even as fate, family, and politics pushes them in a different and often violent directions.
Like many families, there is a hidden history to this immigration story. Thi Bui uses a charcoal or heavy pencil to create the paneling throughout the book. This provides an uneven edge that signals a fragility or messiness of the world she is inviting me to witness. In addition, she uses text boxes to offset her internal narrative. This design choice (seen here on pp. 36-37) provides me with the expository text I need to better understand a story that is incredibly foreign to me. I am not any sort of Asian and although I grew up in Long Beach during the 70s and 80s and knew my fair share of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai kids, I learned nothing about the history of the region.
The watercolor wash – a dark orange that reminds me of the stucco houses in Los Angeles – provides an important depth to the images. Sometimes, as seen on page 36, in the larger panel, Thi Bui uses brushwork to echo and highlight an image. Sometimes color is used as an independent and layered image that illustrates a memory (p. 37, pn. 1). And there are times when the color distinguishes background objects like buildings, and creates a white space to focus attention on characters (p. 37, pn. 2). The depth of hue achieved with a single color is astonishing.
Thi Bui’s light pen work (perhaps done with a brush?) on the characters faces is deceptively simplistic. There isn’t much detail and yet emotions and personalities are clear. Her father’s cloudy disposition, her mother’s emotional reticence, and Thi Bui’s own openness is clear. According to Scott McCloud (see Understanding Comics) the lack of highly defined details on character faces may be what allows me to connect with the characters.
This is a journey book covering some of the historical background that lead to the Vietnam War, and the aftermath for one family. It is at times violet, scary, and merciless in showing the history of this family. From starvation to war to the escape and assimilation this is not an easy story to read and experience but it is worthwhile. I would place this in the hands of any high school student or adult. It is, simply put, a sublime example of a graphic novel memoir. The Best We Could Do uses one family’s story to provide a glimpse into a history sorely absent from the American narrative.