October 31, 2013
Saints by Gene Luen Yang
by Gene Luen Yang
:01 First Second
Saints is the companion book to Boxers, but don’t read Saints until you have read Boxers. The two need to be taken together and the reader will better understand Saints having recently read Boxers.
Saints tells of Fourth Girl, the only one of her mother’s daughters to survive infancy. Her grandfather refuses to name another girl, thus she was called by her birth order, Fourth Girl. Unfortunately, in Chinese this word is a homonym for Death Girl. Unsurprisingly, Fourth Girl’s family convinces her that she really is unlucky and quite probably a devil. When she hears Christianity described as the devil religion, she goes to the only Chinese Christian she knows and to the local priest to learn more about this devil religion.
It is a time of famine in China and the food offered to Fourth Girl by the local Chinese Christians may be the greatest draw to this new religion. When she allows the priest to baptize her, she is severely beaten by her uncle and leaves her family behind to join the priest as he moves to a new church in a larger town.
In Saints, we read about the Boxer Rebellion from the perspective of Chinese Christians. As with many, Fourth Girl, called Vibiana after her baptism, is attracted initially by the food and doesn’t fully understand the faith. Like Little Bao, who sees the spirits depicted in Chinese Opera, Vibiana sees spirits, but she sees Joan of Arc. Joan speaks to her about driving foreigners from France. When Vibiana learns that Joan lead men in battle, she is convinced that this is her vocation, to lead Chinese Christians against the Boxers.
When she meets one of a Boxer cousin, he tells her the Boxer motto, to drive the foreigners out of China. Vibiana wonders if she is on the right side.
As with the first book, the graphic novel format is perfect for capturing Vibiana’s visions, first of a raccoon and later of Joan of Arc and her army as well as the French king.
My one concern is that readers will think that Vibiana is unintelligent for misunderstanding Christianity so completely when such a misunderstanding would be all but inevitable given the language and cultural differences between herself and the priest.
These books deal with a complicated, conflicted time in Chinese history and manage to give a very complete view.