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Thursday, December 26, 2013

What I'm Reading: Boxers and Saints

Today’s review is really for two books, the graphic novel box set by Gene Luen Yang which contains the books Boxers & Saints.

Boxers & Saints tells parallel stories set in 1898 during the height of the Boxer Rebellion. What, you don’t know all about the Boxer Rebellion? Well don’t worry, neither did I, nor did Yang know a lot before he began. But after reading both sides of the story as Yang presents them, not only are you treated to a good story, but you learn something too.

The set up of this box set is deceptively simple.  Boxers is the story of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant whose life is turned upside down by the intrusion and pillaging of Westerners, specifically Christians.  This fatter volume follows Bao as he trains an army that harnesses the power of the Chinese opera and traditional gods to challenge the Westerners who are trying to take over his country. Together they march to the city and try to fight for their traditional ways.

The slimmer volume, Saints follows the life of a young girl, who Little Bao meets at one point in his volume.  She is an unwanted fourth child and a girl to boot.  She is abused by her family but finds acceptance, care, food, and love in the Christian church. In fact, until she converts and leaves home to join the Westerns, she has no name.  After, she is Vibiana.

So the story of a complicated war and era are clearly told in moving images and a humanized, character focused story.  It is the same story told from opposites sides of a violent conflict.  Nothing explains how complicated war is better than seeing it through the eyes of richly drawn characters from both sides of the lines.  These character centered volumes first draw the reader into Bao’s world.  We feel his pain, and cheer with him as he defeats [read: kills] the enemy.  We believe in him and his cause.  He can do no wrong, that is until we open the second volume and follow Vibiana’s story.  From reading Boxers we know what will become of Vibiana, but like with Bao’s story, we get caught up in Vibiana’s tale.  We root for her, agree with her choices, and hope for the best for her.

You know Yang has done a good job here if you can see a reason to root for both sides.  We all know war is difficult in theory, but when you see it unfolding from an intensely personal view on both sides of the battle lines, that difficulty is better appreciated. How can I agree with both, yet they are waging a violent and prolonged battle? Hmmm, just asking this question is the entire point of Yang’s work.

Yang’s pictures are perfect.  They fit the part of the story we are in.  They are drab and simple when the story calls for it and colorful, beautiful, and intricate when they need to be.  Like the plot, the pictures too are deceptively simple. You can race through the story with cursory glances and the pictures will guide you through the tale, but spend a little more time looking a bit more closely, and you will be rewarded with a deeper and more emotional story.

The senselessness of the violence, from both sides is also magnified by the images.  One of my favorite examples of how the pictures flesh the story out comes early in Boxers (the first volume) as Bao watches the Christians destroy the town’s god statue.  My heart broke for him as the god shattered in front of both of us.  And then, a mended version is put out. When Bao tells us it is not the same, we can see it for ourselves.

Boxers & Saints is an amazing reading experience. It is a rich, moving, character centered story, that is thought provoking, educational, and beautifully rendered.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character centered, moving, both sides of the story

Readalikes: If you are looking for more serious graphic novels that both entertain and teach you something about a place and time Jason Lutes’ Berlin Trilogy or the war graphic journalism of Joe Sacco are excellent choices.

Lisa See’s historical fiction novels about China have the same character centered focus and are moving and serious while also teaching the reader something about life in China. Specifically Peony in Love uses Chinese Opera as an inspiration as in Boxers.

Finally, Yang has an extensive list of further reading included at the end of each volume.  You can seen the list for yourself by going to Amazon and searching inside the book for “Further Reading.” It pops right up. I would highly suggest looking here for further nonfiction readalikes as Yang turned to these resources himself when writing the books.

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