Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 213

Boxers & Saints

by Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien
Genre notes: History, perspective
2 vols
ISBN: 1596439246 (Amazon)

Boxers & Saints is really two books, Boxers and Saints. Each represents a different facet of the generalized experience of the rebellion and the events (and kinds of events) that brought it about.

Boxers relates the history through a young man who joins the Boxer movement in a leadership capacity after seeing a fantastic vision and follows him and his brothers as they seek to purge China of the influence of the “hairy ones,” the foreign imperialistic forces (notably found in the form of the Christian missionary movement, both Roman and Protestant sects).

(I wasn’t even aware of either the involvement of Christianity in China at the time nor in the prevalence of mystic vision amongst the Chinese people in that era. I’m always slightly more curious about works that involve the way the human condition is interpreted in light of the Mysterious, so discovering this pre-ignited my interest in Yang’s project.)

Saints takes on the perspective of a Chinese girl (and then young woman) who joins the church and experiences visions of the Maid of Orleans (or Joan, if you’re on familiar terms). Life becomes more tumultuous as she seeks to understand her calling—what she is meant for—and the countryside becomes increasingly hostile toward “foreign devils” and “secondary devils” (those Chinese who’ve converted to the foreign gods).

The books each tell their own story (and are stand-alone to some degree) but intersect in crucial points and cannot be fully understood apart from each other. A person may read one or the other and feel satisfied in the story presented, but together they illuminate each other. This, interestingly, is a reflection on the reality of human existence itself. Living life wholly from my own view, I may gather a seemingly complete story of a life—of what it was to be me. But it’s only when one considers also the lives with which mine intersected—how theirs reflected on mine and how mine affected theirs—that anything approaching a true vantage of who I was can emerge. In taking the stories of Little Bao (Boxers) and Vibiana (Saints) on their own, we see a fraction of their realities. Yet taken together, the two figures come into fuller relief, a touch closer to their real selves.

The manner by which Yang weaves these two narratives together is wonderful. They at first feel simple and rather straightforward, solid but nothing spectacular. That is their deception and a mark of Yang’s gifts. The more I return to their pages, the more the complexity of Yang’s story unfolds. And not just in their cross-pollination, either. The books chart a careful course through the details of the history, drawing in events and figures in such a way that readers will feel comfortable that, though historical fiction and though likely a compression of timelines and events, this is for all its fictions a true story of the Boxer Rebellion.

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