Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang Book Review

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: September 10, 2013

China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers are roaming the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants. Harnessing the powers of the ancient Chinese gods, Little Bao recruits an army of Boxers-commoners trained in kung fu. Together they fight to free China from the "foreign devils" (Christians) and "secondary devils" (Chinese converts).

Meanwhile, an unwelcome and unwanted fourth daughter seeks to find friendship and acceptance and she does--with the Christians. But China has become a very dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing and bands of young men trained in kung fu roam the countryside murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between the love of her country and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide whether she is willing to die for her faith.

First things first, because people always seem confused about this--which book should you read first? I believe the order is Boxers and then Saints. This is a reasonable conclusion because Saints plays off of what was written in Boxers and has an epilogue. The two books are completely reliant on one another as it is absolutely necessary that both sides of this story be told.

Although the events described in this story are based on actual events, Yang used a lot of fictional storytelling devices to carry the story. Although the Boxers did believe themselves to be impervious to weapons, in Boxers, (I did a bit of supplemental reading) the characters in the novel actually turn into Chinese gods. This adds a beautiful visual and religious element to their story, but also made it feel more fictional than I would have liked. Yang is careful though, not to make any of his characters seem too "righteous". Little Bao feels like what he is doing is just, however in the end, he is responsible for the deaths of a great many women and children. In turn, in Saints, the characters are shown as being both caring and a bit self-righteous. Viviana sees them for their acceptance and love, but is also shown that even the people she looks up to can be judgemental or hurting with addiction. It felt so terribly honest to show the characters from both sides in this manner.

I found myself understanding each side of the conflict. The methods that the foreign missionaries were using for proselytization were both normal for that time period and extremely boorish in nature. Walking into an unfamiliar town, grabbing their sacred idol and breaking it on the ground is beyond rude and the priest was lucky the locals didn't tear him apart right then. In turn, people like Viviana found hope and acceptance in this new religion and most simply wanted to be left in peace. Let's not doubt though, both groups had their fanatics and both saw the other as evil. The results were terrible and I lost all sympathy for the Boxers once they began murdering children.

A beautifully told story that does require at least a quick read of Wikipedia in order to understand the story more fully. I love that there are two books with two different perspectives as that is what is usually lacking in a documentary style of story telling.