|Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang
|Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
Saint Martin’s Press
|P.S. Be Eleven
by Rita Williams-Garcia
I’m one of five kids. Children from big families have a habit of asking their mother: “Who do you love most?” Mothers generally hem and haw and say something along the lines of: “I love you all the same.” Right now, I’m feeling a little bit like a mom with a bunch of talented kids who are all asking me who I love the most.
Rita Williams Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven is the accomplished big sister in this literary family. This book is brilliant the way only older children can be. The writing seems so effortless that you imagine the younger siblings complaining about how easy it is for her.
P.S. Be Eleven should be required reading for MFA students because this book is the epitome of how to create characters. Big Ma, Pa, Uncle Darnell, Vonetta, and Fern feel so real that you almost expect them to show up in your kitchen and ask for a slice of lemon cake. The relationship between the three sisters had me longing for a sister of my own (I’m stuck with four brothers.) And then there’s Delphine.
Apologies to Scout, but Delphine is easily one of the most delightful girls to leap off the page in generations. Talk about a kid who worms her way into your heart. Simultaneously so mature and so young, you just want to wrap her up in cotton and tell her that everything is going to work out in the end. Her clear-eyed view of the world rings through the book : “I watched my own sisters through my mother’s eyes, happily dancing this woman into our house.”
The images Rita Williams Garcia evokes are gorgeous and twangy. I will never hear snoring again without thinking of Big Ma. (“Big Ma snored ferociously.”) The balancing act between story and period detail is no clunky magician’s trick; it is so seamless that you know you are in the assured hands of a master. Walking into Rita Williams Garcia’s Brooklyn, you can practically hear the deluxe stereo playing in the background. It is a perfection rarely achieved in historical fiction. Talk about a hard act to follow.
Now, with its understated cover, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is the quiet, middle child. But the thing about middle children is that they have a way of surprising you.
I’m a huge fan of romance novels. My teenage years were full of Barbara Cartland and Harlequin and Silhouette. I am still obsessed with them. Why? Because it’s hard to write a story where the reader already knows the plot: two people meet, they fall in love, happily ever after. Try and tell *that* in a new and fresh way. Few are as successful at this unimaginable feat as Rainbow Rowell is in Eleanor & Park.
Eleanor & Park is unexpected and insane and heady the way first love is. It skillfully balances the mundane trials of everyday teenage life with sharp, magical moments. I liked the duel POV. Both of the characters felt authentic. As someone who grew up in the ’80s, the period details were like a warm bath. The mix tapes, Doc Martens, Echo & the Bunnymen, General Hospital. I adored that Park wooed Eleanor with comics. How fitting that he gave her X-men: the ultimate teenage outcasts of the comic universe.
And can we talk about sentence-level writing? There are so many beautiful sentences in this book that I am hard-pressed to narrow down my favorites (“Park had taekwondo, but Eleanor still had Park, the memory of him, everywhere.”) Not to mention, it had the best love line ever: “You can be Han Solo,” he said, kissing her throat. “And I’ll be Boba Fett. I’ll cross the sky for you.”
Finally, there’s Gene Yang’s Boxers & Saints, clearly the youngest child in this talented family. Younger children, I’ve noticed, are rule-breakers. Probably because by the time they come along, parents are worn out and they figure that their only job is to make sure the kids survive until adulthood. These kids get away with murder. And I mean kids as in plural because, of course, Boxers & Saints are twins.
Oh, First Second. You are totally crazy in a fabulous uncle-living-in-a-car-on-the-front-lawn kind of way. I would have paid good money to be a fly on the wall at the meeting when Gene Yang pitched this project.
GENE: So, I want to do a graphic novel about the Boxer rebellion!
EDITOR: Sounds great!
GENE: And I want to tell it in two volumes. From two different points of view. I’m thinking like 500 pages in total? Oh yeah, in color.
EDITOR: Right on!
GENE: Can I show violence?
EDITOR: Bring it!
Boy, did he bring it. I obviously love history; I write historical fiction. But you couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to wade into the muddy waters of the Boxer rebellion. What a mess. Foreign imperialism and Christian missionaries and Chinese nationalism and dynastic rule and toss in spiritualism, opium, starvation and atrocities everywhere you turn.
But somehow, Gene Yang managed to distill this complicated and bloody historical period into two very personal intersecting coming-of-age stories flush with family, filial duty, morality, and even budding romance. For me, Boxers is the stronger of the two entries. Bao is wonderful. How can you not adore a boy who wants to grow up and marry an opera-faced girl? (Love the opera-faced kids.) I appreciate how Gene Yang did not shy away from the reality of a character being a true believer in a violent cause. The scene where Bao begs Lu Pai to remind him how terrible the missionaries are as he sets fire to a church full of women and children was sharp. The use of Chinese opera characters to stand in symbolically as some sort of superhero alter-ego during the battle scenes rang true to my teenage self. But it was the quiet moments that got me. Bao’s father sitting in front of the window mumbling across six panels is simply heartbreaking—the horribleness of a life randomly ruined.
And yet … Four-Girl from Saints is my favorite character. She felt human and realistic and not the least bit anachronistic; fully bound to the strictures of the time period. Poor Four-Girl—talk about a miserable lot in life! I’m a fan of upside-downing the traditional view of grandparents, but wow, Four-Girl’s grandfather is so wretched he could give Grandmother Patience from Our Only May Amelia a run for her money. The Joan of Arc storyline was interesting and thematically sound, but didn’t quite work for me. Probably because I was raised Lutheran and they’re not big on the whole saints thing. Even so, I thought the priest was a great character. When we meet him in Boxers he’s almost a caricature, but in Saints he is nuanced and conflicted and utterly human. And can we please hear a cheer for that switcheroo ending? It brilliantly tied the two volumes together like an umbilical cord and even gave a glimmer of hope to soothe the soul. Bravo!
Putting on my graphic novelist’s hat, this is art done by a creator at the top of his game. The pacing felt deliberate, the layouts varied and organic, seeming to stretch and breathe as the story demanded—from pages featuring classic three-tiered layouts to colorful splash pages to indulgent double-page spreads. The nine-panel layout in Saints of the family complaining about Four-girl’s face felt like a hilarious homage to Brian Michael Bendis.
Even the color served the story. Lark Pien’s delicious palette was subdued yet striking. I was taken, in particular, by the use of black as well as the richness of the opera characters during the battle scenes. Above all, there was a willingness to allow the art to have a voice. The last page of Boxers with the Gods of the Opera fleeing into the heavens was poignant and perfect.
The totality of the experience left me thinking for days after I finished reading. It sent me madly googling “Boxer Rebellion” to learn more. And isn’t that the true test of a book? Boxers & Saints is something that will be looked back on years from now with people saying, “How did this ever get made?” Because I am still asking myself the same thing. It is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of project. A Sistine Chapel of comics and story and historical fiction. It is what we should all aspire to create. You know, like Neil Gaiman says: “Make good art.” My friends: This is great art.
So, as the mom, I have to say that I love all you kids. I do. You are all insanely brilliant. (Hello, early decision at Harvard?) But I declare the winner a tie to the clever young twins: Boxers & Saints! Please don’t hold it against them. We still have to get through Thanksgiving.
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