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Book Review — Boxers and Saints

Boxers & Saints
Gene Luen Yang
September 2013

Even though Boxers & Saints has been published as two separate books, they really do need to be read together to get the complete story.  Which is why I’m reviewing both books together.

The year is 1898.  The place is China.  Once closed off to the rest of the world, foreign missionaries and soldiers have taken to roaming the countryside to bully, rob, and convert the Chinese people.  There are those that wish to stand up to them, but how?  The foreigners have guns and power on their side.  And then…Little Bao stands up.  He has learned to harness the power of the ancient Chinese gods, and he recruits an army of Boxers – common people trained in Kung Fu, who use the power of the ancient gods to free China from those “foreign devils.”  And lo and behold it works! They begin winning violent battles against the foreign soldiers.  But there is a cost to their victory.  Death.  Death of those “foreign devils” and death of Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity.

On the other side of the coin of the Boxers…are the Saints.  Chinese Christians who want to make a better life for themselves, but are torn between their nation and their faith.  One such Saint is an unwanted fourth daughter, Four-Girl, who is never even given a real name by her family.  Instead she finds both a name, Vibiana, and a family with a local Christian missionary.  She begins having visions of Joan of Arc, who attempts to guide her down the path of righteousness.  But the Boxer Rebellion is coming…and Vibiana will soon have to decide whether she will be Chinese or Christian.

Much like in American Born Chinese, Gene Yang weaves two different powerful stories together to create one amazing story.  In this collection, each story represents a different side of the coin.  On one side you have Little Bao and the past traditions of China and it’s culture.  On the other side you have Vibiana and the Chinese Christians, representing a possible future for the country, one that scares many.  When the story begins this coin is doing a delicate balancing act, with neither side overwhelming the other.  But soon…things begin to tip and sway one way and the other.  First the Christian missionaries begin to rob and bully the Chinese around them.  And then the coin swivels and the Boxers appear, ready to take back their own land.  By the end of the book…well you’ll have to read it to see what happens.

What I like about this collection is that the books work well together to form a history of a time period that many in the Western part of the world are probably not familiar with and it’s written for all ages to understand.  Even more so, Gene writes the story so that we understand the horrors committed by both sides of the conflict.  Gene takes care to show that while both sides had valid arguments, their methods and ways of getting what they wanted were becoming increasingly violent and splintered as strong people in each group began adding their own meanings to what they saw.  While this is likely to make some folks uncomfortable, it is necessary to understand the whole of the conflict.  Gene does an excellent job of ensuring that we, as readers, are able to question both sides of the conflict.

Gene brings his typical, wonderful, art style to this collection.  His bright, rich colors, strong lines, and shading create characters that leap off the page, especially in the Boxers book.  This is in particular noticeable when we see the ancient Chinese gods wearing theatrical costumes as they do battle.  It helps make this time period in history come to life a little bit more. What is even more remarkable though about the artwork for these two books is when you contrast Boxers with Saints. Boxers is all about the bright colors. Saints…is more muted. Brown and dust inhabit the pages, except when we see the specters of Joan of Arc who is brightly colored. It presents a very different view of the characters of these two volumes…one that you’ll have to read to see.

My one regret about these two books, is that I would have loved to have an afterward, one that gave a bit more information about the influences of creation of the books.  But that is neither here nor there.  Overall this is an excellent two volume set and I would highly recommend it for all libraries and all ages.  I give both books 5 out of 5 stars.

ARC provided by Gina at FirstSecond

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