The Good: For a discussion of the two volumes, go back to the reviews from earlier this week.
This, instead, will be about why two volumes? And how do they work together? Or, in other words, spoilers.
Boxers is the primary story: of how and why the Boxer Rebellion again, focusing on one young peasant, Bao, and what led him not only to rebel but also to commit atrocities. Since those actions make sense within the context of the rebellion (or, as some scholars say, uprising), it’s a bit of seduction of the reader, to have the reader at least understand Bao’s actions and, perhaps, even, to sympathize; or, even to think, that such acts were necessary.
As a young boy, Bao sees a young girl; later in Boxers, she shows up again, living with the Christians. It’s the eve of a Boxer attack. She has a bit of edge and an attitude.
In Saints, we learn Vibiana’s story: why she stands on the opposite of Bao, how they both love China, why Bao sees the foreigners and Christians as an enemy and why Vibiana sought Christianity and its fellowship. The two stories contrast shared purpose, different outcomes. Also, knowing what happens in Boxers, one knows what happens to both Vibiana and Bao. Except one doesn’t know, it turns out. There is a twist. Both books need to be read, Boxers first and Saints second, to understand the full story of Vibiana and Bao.
So, why Boxers and Saints? Why not just interweave these as two stories? Why not make it one volume?
To make this part of one story — telling a few pages of Bao, a few pages of Vibiana — would, I think, minimize the importance of both. Bao deserves his own book; so, too, does Vibiana; and this way, they both have it. Truth to tell, I think Vibiana’s story would not be as strong if it were interspersed with Bao’s.
It turns out, it’s not just Bao’s and Vibiana’s characters that meet: other people show up in both books, and offer different perspectives about what is or isn’t happening. But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers. (Boxers and Saints includes some of those policy makers, but it’s more about average people.)
Because Boxers and Saints shows that heroes, villains, and victims may overlap. For the artful storytelling that is as much about when a part of the story is told as it is about the whole. And, for Bao and Vibiana and China. These are Favorite Books Read in 2013.