Bao’s rural village has fallen under the oppressive boot-heel of thugs supported by strange foreigners. After his father is brutally beaten enroute to petition the local governor for help, Bao despairs of a better life. One day, he meets an unusual young man—a brilliant fighter who vows to return honor and justice to China by vanquishing the foreign devils and their hangers-on. Bao is swept up into a grassroots movement that’s rushing headlong toward all-out revolution—and it promises to make Bao and his friends something more than human, avatars of the ancient Chinese gods depicted in the folk operas he loves so well.
But the gods have their own agenda, and Bao’s soul might be the price of their aid.
Meanwhile, Four-Girl is neglected and abused by her own family, who see her as something less than human and a magnet for misfortune. Like Bao, she has an encounter with the foreigners, but they’re kind to her and bring with them a strange new religion that offers her love, and purpose, and a real name, despite her pariah status. If her family already considers her a devil, she thinks, why not do them one better and become a foreign devil herself? She starts going through the motions of becoming a Christian, taking the name Vibiana, but one night in the forest, she meets someone extraordinary—a girl her own age, from long ago and far away. Maybe there’s more to the foreigners’ religion than a warm bed and free snacks…
Boxers & Saints is a two-volume graphic-novel account of the Boxer Rebellion in China, circa 1900, told from two very different perspectives. Award-winning author and artist Gene Luen Yang portrays the complexities of the social and political clashes that drove the failed revolution, and there’s plenty of misunderstanding, poor choices, and tragedy to go around. Bao and Vibiana are heroic young people who want to rescue their beloved nation that’s being torn asunder before their eyes. After their parallel journeys collide in 1910 Beijing, the reader is left with much to ponder regarding the merits and costs of revolution, the nature of justice, and the power of faith.
The art is comic-book style, but it uses bright color and vivid detail both sparingly and thoughtfully, which heightens the impact of key scenes. Character designs are simple and distinctive in Yang’s trademark style. He knows how to communicate a wide range of finely shaded emotions, and this is a very emotional story, masterfully told. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
I suppose you could read the story beginning with either volume, but Boxers sets the stage and provides historical background, while Saints fills in the remaining gaps and challenges the reader’s interpretation of events portrayed in Boxers by offering a view through a different set of eyes. So, I recommend taking them in order—Boxers, then Saints. Together, they offer a well-balanced account that identifies injustices on both sides while subtly arguing for a higher truth that might reconcile them, if we’re willing to listen.
Boxers & Saints is on the shortlist for the National Book Award. The author recommends it for high-school-age readers and up. There are some depictions of graphic violence and examples of dehumanizing racial/cultural propaganda, so parents should employ reasonable discretion and guidance when sharing these books with their older children. They’re well worth sharing!
Here’s a link to an interview with Gene Luen Yang on the Storymen Podcast, in which he talks about Boxers & Saints, his multi-award-winning graphic novel American-Born Chinese, and the complexities of defining one’s identity in a multicultural America. It’s a great way to meet this talented storyteller.
UPDATE (May 2, 2014): Gene has another graphic novel out now—The Shadow Hero is a tale of the first Asian-American superhero, and it looks very cool. Check it out!
UPDATE (Oct 24, 2014): Though it ended up as only a finalist for the National Book Award (and that’s no mean feat), Boxers and Saints won the LA Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature.
Link to purchase Boxers & Saints (this is for the two-volume print set—you can also purchase the books individually or in e-book format. Just search around on your preferred bookseller’s website)