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Background Image Jonathan Swayze

The Best We Could Do

“Life just keeps going. It doesn’t necessarily get happy all at once,” reflected Thi Bui, author of The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir that brings to life the story of her family’s experiences before, during, and after the Vietnam War, from her grandfather’s troubled life and her mother’s pampered upbringing to the birth of her youngest sibling in a Malaysian refugee camp.

The book, an NEA Big Read selection, is being read in conjunction with Ashland City Library’s oral history project on local Vietnam veterans, for which they received an HK Action Grant. One of the goals of the Action Grant is to draw on history to engage in conversations about the present—and it’s important to Cara Vanderree, Library Director, that you understand how relevant these stories are to the Clark County, Kansas, of today.


“We know what it’s like to be afraid and to have the ground around you look like a moonscape,” explains Vanderree, referencing the devastation left behind by the Starbuck Wildfire in 2017. “It looked like a warzone…everything was burned away.” To help process the enormity of the devastating event, Vanderree and volunteers interviewed dozens of people impacted by the fire, including farmers, ranchers, volunteer fire fighters, and first responders. She learned firsthand how powerful storytelling can be in her community.

This project will do something similar by studying the impact of the Vietnam War on the community, with the dual purpose of helping veterans share their stories while also paying tribute to the ways in which the people of Clark County have survived difficult times together—and will do so again. The team behind the oral history project will interview up to 20 people who experienced the war in some capacity, from those who served in Vietnam, to soldiers stationed in Cold War-era Germany, to civilians who faced a myriad of challenges at home.


These interviews will give the story of the Vietnam War more depth and dimension than is commonly explored, which is why Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is so essential to the project. Unlike many other books about the war published in English, Vietnamese people are the main characters, complex and flawed and fully realized. It also complicates the notion of South Vietnam as “the good side” and North Vietnam as “the bad side” by tracing the roots of the war back to French colonial rule. Rather than lingering on images of the battlefield, the book is concerned with ordinary people and the ways that individuals cope with trauma across generations.


“No matter what you’re going through now, it’s something your family has already dealt with in the past, and you’re going to make it,” says Vanderree. It’s a message of resilience she hopes that readers of both the oral history project and Thi Bui’s book will take away. She also wants to remind us of the untold stories hiding in plain sight: “You don’t know how incredible the people in your community are until you ask them straight out.”


Interviews with veterans and other locals affected by the war are currently underway and will be published serially in the Clark County Gazette. Learn more at the Ashland City Library website.


HK Action Grants are available for responsive and meaningful projects that draw on history, literature, and culture to engage the public with stories that spark conversations. Contact Leslie VonHolten, Director of Grants and Outreach, for more information.

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