Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic PBS documentary The Vietnam War does a fairly good job of looking at the war through the eyes of Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict. However, the point of view always returns to the American perspective, and people wanting a fuller picture of the Vietnamese experience will appreciate Thi Bui’s new work of graphic creative nonfiction. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir thoroughly explores the war and its effects on Bui’s family, although its ultimate focus is the frightening responsibilities parents have toward their children.
The Best We Could Do opens with the birth of Bui’s son in 2005 and her difficulty settling into the role of new mother. As Bui reflects on her own mother’s delivery of six children, only four of whom have survived, she begins to dig deeper into the troubled pasts of her parents. Her father’s childhood was particularly brutal, and he’s become a distant, paranoid, sometimes cruel adult.
Throughout the book, Bui displays solid skills as a draftsperson. She excels in depicting the faces of people in the midst of suffering and joy and in creating moody scenes of late ’60s and early ’70s Saigon. The only color in the book is a wash of burnt umber, but it’s used effectively to highlight significant characters, actions, and objects — for example, Bui’s father as a young boy hiding from Viet Minh soldiers in a thicket of bamboo, or the swell of the ocean as her family escapes from Vietnam to Malaysia.
The memoir closes on a note of qualified optimism, but its overall tone is, not surprisingly, one of fear and gloom. Indeed, the book’s title suggests that while Bui, like her mother and father, has done the best she could under trying circumstances, sometimes a parent’s best isn’t quite enough.