Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

saintsTitle: Saints

Author: Yang, Gene Luen (Author’s Website)

Genre:  Graphic novels, historical comics, historical fantasy

Bibliographic: First Second, 176 pages,Paperback List Price $15.99, Box Set (with Boxers) List Price $34.99, ISBNs

Publication Date: September 10, 2013

Rating: ★★★★☆/♥♥♥♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Sympathetic, character-driven, moving, serious, bold illustration, cartoony, muted colors

Why I picked it up: It was assigned for discussion in my readers’ advisory class, along with Boxers.

S.I.A.S.: Vibiana has found a home in Catholicism, but many in China don’t understand or approve.

Summary: Our narrator, born on the fourth day of the fourth month, is her mother’s fourth daughter and the only one to survive past infancy — but because four is an unlucky number, her family never names her. Instead, they call her Four-girl. When she accidentally breaks a statue of Tu Di Gong, her grandfather declares that she’s a devil and she decides to accept the label, with the help of a raccoon. She begins holding her face in an ugly way, so that the people she meets will know she’s bad. Her family doesn’t like her new face, so they take her to an acupuncturist, Dr. Wong, who has a crucifix hanging over his desk. He cures her by making her laugh, and gives her some money to pay his fee, but instead she keeps the coins and gives him pebbles.

One day, she sees a “foreign devil” deliberately smash a statue of Tu Di Gong, and realizes that he’s wearing the same symbol of an “acupuncture victim” around his neck as Dr. Wong had hanging in his office. Four-girl goes back to Dr. Wong, and asks about the symbol, in order to become truly evil — a secondary devil. Four-girl dozes through Dr. Wong’s lesson on the gospel, but greatly enjoyed the cookies he gave her, so she goes back again, neglecting her duties at home. When she gets back, her chores aren’t done so her grandfather hits her, and in return she puts a hex on him — he dies of a nosebleed a few days later.

One day, Four-girl is walking in the woods and sees a shining young woman in armor who is roasting the raccoon on a spit, and who disappears into thin air. When she tells Dr. Wong, he takes her to see his priest, Father Bey, who recognizes that she has had a vision of Joan of Arc. She interprets this as an invitation to formally become a foreign devil, and begins taking catechism classes. She is thrilled by the fact that she’ll get to choose a baptismal name, and chooses Vibiana from a list of saints. When Vibiana gets home from her baptism, her family beats her. She leaves home, and with Joan’s advice goes to Father Bey. He is being assigned to a different community, and agrees to take her with him.

In the new village, Vibiana works in the orphanage, and tries to find out what her calling is — Fr. Bey has told her that she’ll know by a fluttering in her heart, but the only time she feels a fluttering is when she’s around a seminarian named Kong. She jokingly asks him to marry her. One day, some protestant missionaries come to camp seeking sanctuary, as all of their men have been killed by the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Kong agrees to marry her, but she decides that, instead, he is to teach her swordplay, so that she can fight the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist as a maiden warrior, just like Joan.  She continues to prepare as the society gets closer to attacking her settlement.

Evaluation: I did not think that Saints was as good as Boxers. Vibiana was much more developed in this volume, of course, and Kong’s backstory was sufficient that I understood why he acted the way he did, but other than that the characters felt a bit flat. I think I disliked Father Bey even more in this story than in the first one: in Boxers, you know that there is more to his motivation than Bao understands, but in Saints he is presented as a good guy and given a full back story, and I still found him to be highly unlikeable, especially in his judgements of other people. Four-girl’s trust in the raccoon felt awkward and out of place; after seeing literal gods in the first volume and Joan of Arc in this one, this solitary animal with the ability to talk felt odd. At first I thought that Vibiana was imagining her interactions with him, but he seeks her out before she goes to see the acupuncturist. So I don’t really understand.

The colors in Saints are mostly drab browns and grays, with the exception of Vibiana’s visions of Joan. This makes the reader feel somewhat sad on Vibiana’s behalf, that this is how she sees the world.

Where I think this book has the most value is in middle and high schools, where history is usually taught as a series of events to memorize. I personally didn’t learn until college that neutrality and objectivity in history is unrealistic, and Boxers and Saints has the potential to teach that lesson to students at an earlier age. For that, it is extremely valuable, and I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it to students of history, of any age.

Significance: This is the second book by Gene Luen Yang, author of the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the National Book Award, and it was also nominated for the National Book Award.

Readalikes: Maus, by Art SpeigelmanPersepolis, by Marjane SatrapiSamurai Shortstop, by Alan Gratz.

Discussion Questions:

  1. With the exception of her visions of St. Joan, the entirety of Vibiana’s story is told in muted, somber colors. Why? Why is Joan depicted differently?
  2. As a child, Four-Girl longs to be given a real name. How much of her decision to convert to Christianity is influenced by their promise to let her choose a name of her won? What does this mean to her? What is the power of her name?
  3. What does the concept of China mean to Vibiana? How does her identity as Chinese conflict with her identity as a Christian? Why is her faith ultimately more important to her than traditional Chinese identity?
  4. Did your opinion of Boxers change after reading Saints? Why or why not?
  5. Vibiana and Bao are both concerned with the idea of a calling, or a destiny — how are they similar and how are they different? Which one did you identify more with? Why or why not?

Lists and Awards:  Booklist Editors’ Choice — Books for Youth — Older Readers Category: 2013. Conflicted: Life During Wartime (2014). Los Angeles Times Book Prizes: Young Adult Literature. School Library Journal Best Books: 2013. YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens: 2014.

Professional Reviews:  Publishers’ Weekly. Kirkus. New York Times. NPR. Tor.

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