Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien, 512 pages, RL: Middle Grade
Boxers & Saints is the innovative new graphic novel diptych from Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, winner of the Printz Award, the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album - New and a 2006 finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. And, today Boxers & Saints was long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. As the covers show, Boxers & Saints presents parallel stories of two young people who find themselves on opposite sides of the turn-of-the-20th-century Boxer Rebellion. You can read either book first, Boxers or Saints, and I guarantee you, whichever you choose to read first, after you have read both you will go back and read them again. Yang presents both sides of this violent time in Chinese history with equal scrutiny and fairness. As the Kirkus starred review so aptly says, "this tour de fource fearlessly asks big questions about culture, faith and identity and refuses to offer simple answers." Please don't miss the incredible book trailer at the end of this review.
Little Bao of Boxers and Vibiana of Saints, both begin their stories as children. Vibiana is an unlucky, unwanted and unnamed fourth daughter. Ignored by her family and desperate for her Grandfather's regard, Four-Girl tries to get herself noticed, but only manages to draw more negative attention to herself, leading her to set her face in a horrible, permanent grimace, becoming the devil everyone says she is. It is this act that leads her mother to take her to a soft-hearted accupuncturist (based on the real-life Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang) who is also a Catholic. Four-Girl's time with Dr. Won, as he is called in Saints, leads her to begin asking questions about Jesus Christ, at first for the reward of the cookies that Mrs. Won gives students after class, but eventually because of the way that she is treated by the Wons and her desire to change her life. She is given a name, Vibiana, and soon after she has her first vision. After describing her vision to the Wons, they take her to see the Westerner, Father Bey who suspects she is seeing the Maid of Orleans. More encounters with Joan of Arc and abuse and ostracism from her family make Vibiana's decision to leave her village and travel with Father Bey to a Christian stronghold and easy one. Once there, she and everyone else in the compound become a target for the Boxers. The influence and teachings of her adopted religion and the words of Joan of Arc affect Vibiana's actions in a surprising, powerful and poignant way.
Little Bao's story begins with his love of the opera and the ancient gods who are characters in it. Gradually at first, the influence of Christian missionaries and their Chinese followers, as well as the violent behavior of foreign soldiers, arrive at Little Bao's village. Red Lantern Chu, an itinerant worker who begins to teach the young men of the village kung fu, also arrives at Little Bao's village. Eventually, under the tutelage of Red Lantern Chu and his master, Little Bao becomes a leader of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, fighting to destroy the foreigner, bolstered by the guidance of the spirit of Ch'in Shih-huang, the first emperor of China.
The parallel lives of Vibiana and Little Bao intersect, first when they are children, then again in Peking, as the novels draw to their ends. Yang, who was a teacher in a Roman Catholic school in San Francisco for many years, researched this subject matter, which is often glossed over in school, intensely. In an interview, Yang details the ideologies and myths that Europeans and Boxers believed about the other, which, interestingly, mirrored each other's in startling ways. This mirroring is handled brilliantly throughout Boxers & Saints, from the incredible design of the two books to the many plot threads and details in the books and in Yang's art. In each book, the real life scenes are often presented in subdued earth tones while the scenes with the mythical gods and saints come alive with vivid colors. And, in both novels, the facial expressions of Vibiana and Little Bao, while simply executed, are always compelling and seem to speak volumes. In fact, this can be said for Yang's illustrations and Pien's coloring as well. One of my favorite parts of Boxers comes when Little Bao develops a love interest who, in turn, insists on fighting beside him. However, the men fear the polluting "Yin" of the women and strange and ridiculous superstitions and prejudices abound, keeping them separated. Despite this, the women train and make an impressive force when they attack, as seen below. The final parallel that Yang draws is one that is especially thought provoking and involves the story of Guan Yin, which Little Bao has read out loud to him as he sits in a library in Peking, contemplating his army's next move, and the story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells Vibiana as she awaits a certain death. Yang's visual blending of these two stories is stunning, the ending of both Little Bao and Vibiana's stories equally breathtaking.
I can't emphasize enough how remarkable Yang's storytelling talent is, especially as demonstrated in Boxers & Saints. The praise Boxers & Saints has already received, especially the comments from other authors does much better job speaking to the power of these books than I can, so I'll share these quotes below.
"A masterful work of historical fiction that happens to be in the form of a graphic novel, and a very accessible view into a complicated moment in Chinese history."
"In Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang once again masterfully draws us into the most difficult issues of self-identity and communal understanding, with characters who struggle to act out of their deepest cultural and spiritual selves. But when they find that their commitments lead them in terrible, frightening directions--one toward massacres, another toward martyrdom--they must ask questions for which there are no easy answers. The brilliance of this novel--and I mean, aside from the brilliance in the telling of a major historical episode about which most North Americans know very little and which provides some critical lessons in political relationships--the brilliance lies in the merger of fast action and humor and very real characters and startling graphics with a shattering sense of the brokenness of the world and our terrible need for compassion. Read this, and come away shaking."
-- National Book Award Finalist and Newbery Honor winner Gary Schmidt, author of Okay for Now and The Wednesday Wars
Source: Review Copy