Howdy folks! Tonight we are going to mull over a rather tasty bit of some food for thought that falls into the realm of historical fiction. You know, the kind of thing like Downton Abbey, based in a specific time-period with fictional–and sometimes even supernatural–main characters and struggles placed in history. BASICALLY, your historical accuracy milage may vary, but overall, there is at least some general historical digging up to do when it comes to not only setting the time period but also picking a distinct perspective to talk about.
After all, there are many sides to our rich history–and to drag up an old cliche, there are sayings about how history is written by the victors. But then there are those few (and really cool) writers who can draw on shared history and build a complex story that sheds light on multiple sides of a conflict, which is exactly what Gene Leun Yang accomplished with his latest graphic novel Boxers and Saints.
You may be familiar with Gene Yang from his works American Born Chinese, Avatar-fan-favorite (or least favorite, but we’ll get to that another day) The Promise, and The Search. Gene Yang is known for his rich story-telling skills and his ability to craft charming characters even as they face some hefty doses of grim reality. As an Asian-American, I am quite fond of American Born Chinese and his insight into the struggle for identity, which was interestingly touched upon in his work even in the world of ATLA. (*COUGH* Colonialism, imperialism, and warring identities anyone — because damn did he handle it perfectly even when we’re dealing with a fantasy world – colonialism and its effects can be a pretty big thing.)
In fact, it’s his insight in identity and his ability to articulate these struggles of that over-complex-human-condition–with plenty of wit and a dash of (heart-breaking) irony on the side–that stands out the most in his Boxers and Saints volumes. And when dealing with a historical fiction, especially one detailing the Boxer Rebellion, it’s pretty important to show aspects of each side that may be glossed over in the typical history text book.
Boxers and Saints actually consists of separate volumes that do intersect at points in their plot-lines, but each can be read independently of one other. There is no right “order” to read them in, if you’re curious. And for a bit of a history refresher, The Boxer Rebellion was a violent movement by the Righteous Harmony Society in China between 1899-1901. A combination of foreign economic upheaval, the Opium Wars, increased Christian missionary presence–you know, all that “spheres of influence” stuff–inspired unhappy, poverty-stricken Chinese to rally against foreign influence.
Swept up into these turbulent times are Gene’s two protagonists–or antagonists based upon which graphic novel you’re reading–Little Bao and Four Girl. Inspired by a sense of self that is in turn empowered by firm beliefs in their various gods and spirits, these two children must learn to fight for their beliefs and are swept into the hue and cry of war. And, maybe even inadvertently, they do end up “helping” each other along the way, even when standing at opposite sides of a theological/nationalistic battle.
It’s a pretty controversial setting, but as I gushed before, Gene Yang has a marvelous grasp on handling characters, especially young protagonist/antagonist duos like Little Bao and Four Girl, who have their own quirks and their own strengths and flaws that round them out as incredibly interesting characters who you alternatively want to cheer on and scream at. I personally have a soft spot for Four Girl, an unwanted girl-child who decides that if she is treated like a “demon” by her own family that she will become one–and in fact assumes that the Christians worship “devils” and so turns to Christianity as the ultimate school for becoming a true devil.
(It’s endearing–but man, there is also some nice irony in there that will help with the inevitable gut-punch violence and weight of the Boxer Rebellion).
And in turning towards something perceived as “evil,” she eventually finds something that calls to her and ends up becoming a real home for her. It’s an interesting character arc and turnaround that like it or not, does touch up on the nuances of the Boxer Rebellion, especially the questions of dealing with estranged relatives on other sides of a war front. And the same can of course be said of Little Bao’s arc and his growth while fighting to free China of foreign enemies–but perhaps learning that the price for freedom isn’t as romantic or as glorious as he once believed. And, woah, we have to give bonus points here for a post-colonial take on this bit of history, which, if I remember from my AP History Class, was terribly glossed over. Yang however opens up the discussion on the romantics of the national hero and nationalism in general, to which I give the utmost kudos.
Really, if there’s a thing that Gene Yang is good at it’s his writing–and for those of you looking to add something new to your graphic-novels-to-read list, pick this set up for the character development and a narrative that beautifully illustrates the struggle of identity.
Speaking of “illustrates”, if you’re looking for something that’s also rather pretty to look at, look no further than Boxers and Saints. Yang teams up with colorist Lark Pien to provide a very visually pleasing work, with muted colors giving way to great character design. The style isn’t too flashy or detailed, but overall it is very pleasing to look at, especially if you’re a fan of a bit of that “cartoony” style, without the over-exaggeration.
So, for all you history buffs out there eager to get your hands on a neat graphic novel, definitely give Boxers and Saints a read through for a great set of stories that touches on a rather glossed moment in history with the fine nuance and attention to detail of an experienced writer.