By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second, 2013
It’s 1898, and foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the Chinese countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.
Little Bao, a young man living with his father and two brothers, has had enough and decides to do something about it.
He joins — and soon becomes a leader of — an army of commoners, training in kung fu, to fight to free China from the “foreign devils.” The army of Boxers harness the powers of ancient Chinese gods to help them in their battles. And it works, as the grassroots rebellion is successful — and violent — with many deaths on both sides of the fight.
As the body count rises, it becomes clear that things are not so simple. In addition to the foreign missionaries, thousands of “secondary devils” — Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity — are being killed in the battles.
While the Boxer Rebellion was a significant point in Chinese history, it is an event I am not too familiar with.
“Boxers” serves as an introduction into the rebellion and together with its companion publication, “Saints” (which I have previously recommended), the two graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang tell the story of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion from two different points of view: that of a Boxer (Little Bao) and a Chinese citizen who has converted to Christianity (Vibiana).
As a graphic novel, “Boxers” not only tells part of the story of the rebellion, it illustrates it. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” rings true with Yang’s drawings. From depictions of the battles to pictures of the struggles of life on the countryside, readers get an idea of what the Chinese people went through in those years. We see how difficult life was for them, as well as the lengths they went through to reclaim their country.
By Mine Okubo
University of Washington Press, 1983
As a young woman, Mine Okubo was one of more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were taken into “protective custody” after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Nearly two-thirds of those forced into the internment camps were American citizens, imprisoned without any sort of trial.
In “Citizen 13660,” a graphic memoir with a title that references the number Okubo and her brother were assigned as a family unit, Okubo gives readers a glimpse of what life was like while living in relocation centers in California and Utah. Okubo chronicles everything, from the time she spent in Europe when England and France declared war, to when she and her brother arrived at Tanforan Assembly Center, to the day-to-day life in the camp.
In her memoir, Okubo not only tells readers about her life, she shows us. Through her illustrations, we see the conditions the Japanese and Japanese Americans were living in, and we see how crowded it was and the little thought the American government put into the camps that were supposed to be for their protection.
While much of what Okubo includes in her memoir depicts the struggles and difficulties of camp life, she also shows how they pushed through it all to find some semblance of a normal life for themselves. From creating schools and churches to building a lake and establishing recreational activities, the Japanese and Japanese Americans did not let their circumstances keep them down.
In describing her experiences, Okubo keeps things pretty straightforward and sticks mostly to the facts. She limits emotion she includes in her telling. By doing this, the effect is that readers are left to react and feel however they feel in response to her experiences. She doesn’t force her emotions onto others, giving readers a more real feeling of what it would be like if they were in the camps.
“Under a Painted Sky”
By Stacey Lee
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2015
At 15 and living in Missouri with her father in 1849, all Samantha wants to do is move back to New York, where she was born.
But the young Chinese American girl’s dreams are quickly dashed after her father dies in a fire that burns down his dry goods store, and she is forced to kill their landlord in self-defense after he tries to rape her.
With no other choice but to flee, Samantha teams up with Annamae, a young slave about her age, who has plans to run away toward freedom. To hide from the authorities, the two teens disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys traveling to California for the Gold Rush.
As they journey westward, the two girls forge a strong friendship and learn to rely on each other, as they struggle to survive on the open trail — from making sure to stay ahead of the authorities, to hiding their gender from others (especially the group of cowboys they meet and travel with along the trail), to relying on their wits to make sure nature doesn’t kill them.
“Painted Sky” is a story about two strong teenagers, who do what they have to do to survive. In a time when females, as well as people of color, are seen as lesser — especially in Annamae’s case — Samantha and Annamae do not let this hold them back. They know how low their standing is in society and they do what they can for a better life.
The two heroines are strong, resourceful, and definitely not damsels in distress waiting for someone to rescue them.
This is also a story about friendship, and seeing the relationship between Samantha and Annamae grow throughout the book is a powerful thing.
They start out as two girls who barely know each other, coming together out of necessity, to becoming friends who know they would be able to bet their lives on each other.
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.