Book Title: Saints
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: YA
Genres: Historical Fiction
Page Count: 176
Format: Hardcover (library)
Reading time: 1 hour
Date Finished: 1/25/17
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My impressions: Saints is actually the companion book to Boxers, a graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion in China, and had I realized that before starting, I might have read Boxers first. Fortunately, Saints is a parallel story about a character who only briefly appears in Boxers, and it’s able to stand alone on its own merits as a tale about a young Chinese girl who becomes a Christian at a time when westerners (and Chinese Christians, called “secondary devils”) are being violently purged from the country.
The story is about an 8-year-old who is so unwanted, she’s called “Four-Girl” since she’s the fourth child in her family. Her father died when she was little, and her grandfather and cousins constantly treat her like she doesn’t belong. Four-Girl has a strange encounter in the woods with a racoon she believes to be a magical demon, and she decides to become a devil herself by making an ugly face at everyone she sees and misbehaving.
Her mother takes her to see an acupuncturist, who recognizes immediately that she’s making a face and who interests her in his Christian faith, though she completely misunderstands what it’s about and sees the opportunity to learn about his faith as a way to escape her family and obtain special treats from the man. Four-Girl’s family eventually discovers she’s hanging around the Christians and she runs away from home, joining a Christian settlement miles away and living there for several years under her new Christian name, Vibiana.
Through all of this, Vibiana has been receiving visions of Joan of Arc, with whom she feels she has some spiritual kinship. Joan of Arc is, of course, long-dead and completely disconnected from the Boxer Rebellion in history, but these visions (the origin or nature of which are never explained) provide guidance to Vibiana and provide her with many different ideas of who she may grow up to be. Ultimately, however, tragedy strikes, and her final act on Earth is to provide a young man (the hero of Boxers) with a piece of information that will later help him to survive his own encounter with mortality.
What I enjoyed most about this story is how unique it is. Vibiana is a tragic figure from the moment she’s introduced; she has no real name, no real identity, and nothing in her life that she loves, except perhaps her weak and beaten-down mother. She is drawn to Christianity as an act of rebellion against her values, but she never really understands it; she sees Jesus as an acupuncture victim, she sees the message of the gospel as being about judging those who are not devout, she sees others’ generosity as a source of exploitation rather than a source of goodness, and she sees her own calling as being a warrior maiden, not a prayerful servant.
I also really like the way Gene Luen Yang drew her and the other characters – his style is so simple and iconic that the characters are expressive and easy to understand, and yet he’s able to easily distinguish between the Chinese and Western characters without relying on stereotypical renderings. Vibiana/Four-Girl’s large lips are a prominent feature of her face, and she’s almost always frowning or making ugly faces. She is in compelling, but unlikable figure; you keep waiting for her redemption and maturity to occur, but once her story ends, she is just as confused and defiant as she’s always been (even having a vision of Jesus as a sort of Buddha).
I can’t wait to read Boxers and get more perspective on this graphic novel. It was a quick read, but I loved it. It was quite different from American Born Chinese, but just as easy to recommend.