Gene Luen Yang tells two sides of the Boxer Rebellion in his two new books. Saints is the tale of a young girl growing up unwanted in late 19th-century China. She’s so unwanted, and considered so unlucky, that she isn’t even given a proper name…she’s simply called Four-Girl (because she is the fourth child).
Four-Girl takes to her outcast status with a particular vigor. If she’s going to be seen as a devil, she is certainly going to act and look like one. She puts on faces, which causes her mother to take her to an acupuncturist who may be able to help “cure” her. The man is a Christian, and Four-Girl surreptitiously begins to see him to learn more about the stories he tells…tales of a man called Jesus. The stories actually put Four-Girl to sleep, but nevertheless, she keeps coming back. And eventually she begins to adopt this foreign faith and make it her own, complete with religious hallucinations (or are they real?).
She sees visions of Joan of Arc, and the visions vividly become part of her life and instruct her with lessons. This story device parallels wonderfully with Saints’ companion book, Boxers.
In Boxers, a young man named Bao is frustrated with the constant onslaught of foreign missionaries who proclaim to be teaching religion but instead are thieves and bullies. They mercilessly rob and threaten Bao’s peasant countrymen and show no remorse.
Bao becomes part of the movement to fight back against these missionaries. Guided by visions of Chinese gods, Bao is fierce in his desire to rid his country of this influx of foreigners. But at what cost? Even as the struggle against the foreigners is going well, the price paid by those on each side is staggering. It’s a lesson that Bao learns slowly.
Putting such a human face on a violent period of Chinese history allows Yang to showcase all of his formidable storytelling skills. He’s a master of economical dialogue, letting his characters speak volumes with minimal words. His illustrations --- a powerful blend of friendly cartoonishness against beautifully detailed backdrops --- are wonderful throughout both books. It's also a testament to his skill that Yang can create wonderfully nuanced balances of humor and seriousness in both books. The violence depicted is very much real, and very much awful to behold. And yet the beauty of the humanity depicted, and the desperation that comes from living in such trying times, is present as well. There is much to love in watching these two young protagonists fight back against systems and political structures they had no hand in creating, just as there is much that will make the reader wince in sadness. Yang balances all pieces of the two stories with a master's touch.
Boxers clocks in at twice as many pages as Saints, but both are densely packed stories with heavy plotlines and thought-provoking twists. Even with the shorter page count, Saints seems to unfold slowly and deliberately. Its devious protagonist is also so likable and engaging that she leaves you wanting much more. It’s hard to say which is the better book here; in truth, they are both so compelling and well-thought-out that it would be a shame if a reader only read one side of this two-volume story.
Reviewed by John Hogan on August 20, 2013