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The Legend of Auntie Po | Review

The Legend of Auntie Po coverThe Legend of Auntie Po
Writer/artist: Shing Yin Khor
Penguin Random House; $22.99

Auntie Po was the biggest, strongest, most proficient lumberjack to ever work the timber west of the Mississippi. Taller than a white pine, she could cradle a regular-sized lumberjack in the palm of her hand like a little doll, and she could blow with such force that she could send logs rushing back upstream. She was always accompanied by her faithful animal companion, a big blue ox—I mean, buffalo.

If Auntie Po sounds a little like Paul Bunyan to you, well, you must have heard your lumberjack stories from a white man. In the stories told by Mei, the protagonist of Shing Yin Khor’s The Legend of Auntie Po, it’s a Chinese woman who looms largest.

Mei isn’t exactly like anyone else in the 19th century logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas she lives in. She works in the kitchen under her father Hao, helping cook meals for a hundred white lumberjacks and 40 Chinese workers. Her specialty is pies.

She loves to read. She loves her best friend Bee, the daughter of the camp foreman Hels Anderson, and she loves her in a way that is not dissimilar to the way Bee’s brother loves his wife. And, of course, she loves to tell stories, including stories of Auntie Po.

“Does she know Paul Bunyan?” a little boy asks Mei of Auntie Po, as she’s winding up to tell the camp kids a new story.

“I don’t know, but Paul Bunyan sure knows about Auntie Po,” Mei replies. “Everyone knows about Po Pan Yin.”

Despite having her name in the title, Auntie Po isn’t the star of the book so much as a potent symbol within it. Auntie Po is a story, and, as a story, she has a sort of liminal reality within the narrative, she and her giant blue buffalo Pei Pei appearing to Mei in times of stress.

At first Mei thinks she might be hallucinating, but then she begins to accept their reality, and the fact that not everyone sees them for themselves; some, like her father, don’t need to see them to believe in them (because he believes in Mei), while others, like a little Black boy who likes her stories, do see her, but see her differently, as a Black woman.

All of the stories within the book are like that (and, by suggestion, all stories are like that). Bee’s brother has one story about Mei, a Chinese girl: “Mei doesn’t have a real future.”  Mei’s father has another, in which she takes over the kitchen from him one day. Mei and Bee have their own stories, in which they collaborate on writing and drawing stories, and own a pie shop, and are best friends forever. As the book draws near its end, Mr. Anderson has his own stories about Mei, like how she can go to university and get an education, despite her race and gender.

These stories all co-exist for Mei. They’re all possibilities of sorts, and their likelihood of becoming true, of becoming the story, can shift from chapter to chapter, depending on what’s going on. Like Auntie Po, they could be real, or they could just be simple campfire diversions, a way to pleasantly pass the time.

On one level, The Legend of Auntie Po is the story of a unique young, queer, Chinese woman living in a 19th century lumber camp. On another, it’s a meditation on the nature of stories, and how they can influence our lives.

Shing Yin Khor, whose previous comics work was the 2019 graphic novel The American Dream?, draws all of the character in a very simple, almost amateur-ish looking style that belies the strength of the artwork as sequential storytelling. There’s an impressive consistency in the designs, and the way that emotion and motion move through the art, practically animating the panels.

Colored with watercolor, the book has an almost homemade feel to it, making it feel as intimate as one of Mei’s stories told to a fidgety child around a campfire or before falling asleep in a bunk bed. It could hardly be more appropriate for the subject matter, then.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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