Thursday, September 05, 2013

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, is one of my very favorite graphic novels of all-time. I would venture to say that it's one of the best of the medium, right up there with Maus or Persepolis. It's written for a young adult audience, but it's no less nuanced and it doesn't shy away from confronting our ideas of Otherness. As you can imagine, based on my praise for this book, I was pretty tickled to find out that Yang has a new set of books coming out on September 10th. Boxers and Saints. While these volumes are being sold separately, they should most definitely be read together. They are well-done on their own, but they are stellar in their pairing and I'm totally comfortable saying that they have surpassed American Born Chinese, as my favorite of Yang's work.

The books present parallel stories of Chinese children during the Boxer Rebellion -- a boy who sides with the Boxers and a girl who converts to Christianity. I was not at all familiar with the Boxer Rebellion, but as I came across unfamiliar terms in the books, and the more Googling I did, the more familiar I became. In short, the rebellion was an anti-foreign, pro-nationalist movement aimed squarely at foreign imperialism and Christianity. It also erupted against a backdrop of drought and economic crisis. 

What's so touching about this book is seeing the event unfold from opposing sides. As with any economic, political, and cultural turmoil, there is blame on both sides. Each opposing force sees righteousness in his or her own cause but they lose objectivity.  

A spread from Boxers where the men "become" gods. 
In Boxers, a young boy named Little Bao becomes enamored of a new man in town who begins training his brothers and townsfolk in the martial arts and in the particulars of battle. Meanwhile, as foreigners and Christian missionaries move through the area, negative feelings begin to stew. In short, he becomes a part of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists. A key player in the rebellion. They believe that they are possessed by gods when they enter battle and nothing can stop them.

A spread from Saints when Vibiana has a vision of Joan of Arc.
On the flip-side, in Saints, a young girl without a proper name--only called Four Girl--is mistreated by her family and finds solace with Christian missionaries. She chooses the name Vibiana from among the saints and she begins to have visions of Joan of Arc. Slowly she finds her place among Christians though she constantly wonders if her faith is strong enough that she would die for Joan. 

Yang is a master of employing visual and narrative techniques that bring the characters and their struggles to life. It was a heartbreaking set of books in that it shows the disturbing results of extremism. I gulped these books down in two days, and they are definitely volumes I will re-read. Even though I received an ARC for review, I've already pre-ordered my "keeper" set to add to my shelves. 

Pub. Date: September 2013
Publisher: First Second Books
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781596439245
Source: I received an e-galley of these books in exchange for an honest review. 

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