Historical Fiction: Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints via Flickr

As human beings, we are naturally drawn to stories because they are how we communicate and connect to others emotionally and to the world around us. Historians in this sense are storytellers because they help us to better understand the past by studying and writing about it. While not everyone can identify with academic historical narratives, most people can relate to and connect with historical fiction.

Historical fiction should be utilized as an aid to the confusing and complex stories that historians tell. To be considered “good” historical fiction, an author should present the information in a way that does not conflict with the historical facts. Instead, historical fiction should be used to help the reader picture an actual person experiencing the event that is thoroughly explored in the academic history book. 

When people read works of historical fiction, they should use some caution because these books are not necessarily written by academics, and they may not be using the proper sources. In order to properly utilize these sources, a person should check the background of the author to see if they are a specialist in that specific field. If the author is, that would make the book an excellent source, but if they are not, there should be a bibliography or a page that lists additional sources to prove that they did the proper research.

Over the past decade, graphic novels have become a popular form of historical fiction that help students of all levels to better understand the events and the people they are studying in their history classes. From the United States’ Constitution, to the Civil War, to genocide, to the World Wars and to 9/11, historical graphic novels are being written across periods of history. An example of a useful graphic novel is Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints. These books are particularly helpful in understanding the Boxer uprising of 1899-1900 in northern China because it simplifies an event that is told in many different ways. While Yang is not an expert in the Boxer uprising, he has clearly researched this topic thoroughly. This is evident through his list of “Additional Reading” at the end of each graphic novel. After completing Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys, Yang does a fantastic job of incorporating the elements and beliefs that surrounded the beginning, middle, and end of the Boxer uprising. In fact, Yang includes both perspectives of the Chinese involved in this event: the Boxer and the Saint. These books would be best used as a supplemental reading tool to textbooks or books similar to Cohen’s because it adds the personal connection that people look for in their stories.

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