Wow. I hardly know where to start with how much I loved this book. I read it in one sitting--not difficult for a graphic memoir, granted, but it's very compelling.
This is the story of Thi Bui's family, who escaped Vietnam by boat in the 1970s and became refugees in Malaysia before making their way to America. That right there is plenty to chew on; witnessing the horrors of the Vietnam war firsthand, taking on a dangerous escape because there was no other choice--they were likely to die or "disappear" if they didn't--and going through the miseries of the refugee life, then the poverty-stricken immigrant life in a country where many resented them because of their roots in Vietnam.
But it's more than that. It's also the story of Thi Bui's parents, who at first seem like run-of-the-mill stereotypical dysfunctional parents. But the author took on the task of trying to understand them, what made them the way they are, and she dug deep. Certainly life in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s played a huge role, but that wasn't all. And who her parents were had an effect on who the author became--as is true for all of us.
Bui frames the book around the birth of her child, which could have been hokey, but by using it as the jumping-off point to exploring her parents, she manages to avoid becoming trite. Instead, this is a heartfelt look at her parents and her relationship with them, with all its faults and unfulfilled hopes. And isn't that something nearly all of us can understand, even if we didn't become Vietnamese refugees in the 70s?
The illustrations are beautiful too. The drawings are founded in black-and-white drawings, with gentle shadings of color. It's hard to imagine this book having the emotional impact it does without them.