Thi Bui

The Best We Could Do

  • 42-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 10 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an English instructor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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The Best We Could Do Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 10 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Family Life Cycle and The Spoken and the Unspoken.

The artist and writer Thi Bui published her autobiographical graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, in 2017. Alternating her narrative between her present-day experiences as a new mother in New York City with her parents’ past growing up in and then escaping from Vietnam, Bui builds a complex web of intergenerational trauma and love. This is Bui’s first venture into comic book illustration. The artwork that accompanies her narrative is based on the black and white starkness of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Bui adds to her facially minimalist ink panels a wash of peachy-pink watercolor, sometimes saturated and sometimes pale, depending on the strength of the memory with which it is associated. Bui won the American Book Award for the graphic novel.

Plot Summary

The book begins and ends with a depiction of the birth of Thi’s son. Within these two brackets, the narrative covers the lives of Thi’s mother, Hắng, and her father, Nam—as well as the story of the Bui family’s escape from Việt Nam during the Vietnam War. We hear about the births of each of the Bui children in Vietnam. First, there was the birth of Quyên in Sài Gòn in 1965. Quyên did not live for more than a month. Then, Lan was born in 1966 in the Mekong Delta. After that, Bích was born in Sài Gòn in 1968, followed by the stillbirth of Thảo in Sài Gòn in 1974. Thi was born in Sài Gòn in 1975. Her brother Tâm was born in a Malaysian refugee camp in 1978, the year that the Buis fled from Việt Nam.

After each of the Bui siblings is introduced, the narrative moves in and out of distinct time periods in the life of the family, as well as the individual lives of Hắng and Nam. We learn about Nam’s rural origins in Northern Việt Nam, and Hắng’s idyllic, wealthy upbringing in the South. Nam spent most of his childhood being cared for by his grandfather, who took charge of his care when Nam’s father abandoned the family to join the Việt Minh. Nam and his grandfather eventually made it to Sài Gòn by the time Nam became a young man. It was there that he met and married Hắng, and they began a family together. Hắng spent her childhood in the Southern Nha Trang, an area initially isolated from the violence of the conflicts that would develop into the Vietnam War. She was a student in Sài Gòn when she met and married Nam.

In 1978, Hắng arranged for her family to escape Việt Nam on a cargo boat. Nam became the boat’s captain in the heat of the moment, replacing someone who would have led the boat to ruin. The family narrowly escapes an encounter with Thai pirates and eventually makes their way to Malaysia, where they are housed at the Pulau Besar refugee camp. Through refugee sponsorship programs, the family relocates to Hammond, Indiana, where they stay with a family member. However, they soon move to California to resettle permanently. The Bui siblings grow and thrive academically and eventually leave the family to pursue their own lives and marriages.

The book chronicles Thi’s project of learning and respecting the intricate details of her parents’ lives and the complex truths of the war. Through this journey, she embarks on her own journey of motherhood armed with a fuller understanding of, and sense of peace with, the history and stories that bind her lovingly and permanently to her own parents.

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Chapters 1-2