“My lifetime is shorter than my literary ambitions” writes Anneke Majors in the forward* to her new book, The Year of the Boar. She continues, “Many of the stories came to me in a much more barebones form than you see here. . . But I stand by these stories as true stories because the characters are true. Everything that actually matter is real.”
And so begins The Year of the Boar, a lovely and comforting offering in the genre-blending “autobiographical novel” style of Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven.
Primarily a missionary tale that follows the author’s own mission in Japan, this novel-in-stories swirls in and out of time–even jumping to the future in a final section– but finds its anchor in the Chinese Zodiac and the soulful Sister Majors, who seems to be the very embodiment of the traits of the zodiac Boar. She is diligent (when it comes to persevering through bad weather she beats the US Postal service) and compassionate (when stuck with a negative companion she tries to love that companion by always finding positives and doing the emotional lifting). She is extremely likable and everything a sister missionary should be.
However, the story seems to shine most in the small moments of transitory characters. My personal favorite was Tetsuo, a man who survived World War II in Japan, helped translate the democratic constitution and later serves a public servant. Tetsuo’s defining moment comes when he finds a crucifix (“the European god nailed to the character for ten like they always depicted him”) in a bombed out Christian church. Majors writes,
“[Tetsuo] thought for a moment about taking it home, showing it to his mother, keeping it as a curio. But as he went to slip it into his sack, he felt a pang of guilt. It wasn’t his to keep, and it should be with someone who would know how to take better care of their god than he. The statue’s face was pitiful, contorted with pain. For so long he had resented this big European church up on the hill, staring down at them all like it deserved to be above them. He had had no regard for the Europeans or their little god, but now, holding it in his hands that way, it looked so frail. He hesitated, wanting to make the right choice. But was leaving it on the ground in the rubble the right choice either? He decided to hold onto it, but only for safekeeping. He would come back when there was someone back to rebuild or take care of the church in some way, and he would return their god to his house, hopefully a house that would be strong and beautiful again.”
Moments like this one, small moments where the characters must negotiate between the ever-shifting political and spiritual forces around them, are what give this book its heart.
Occasionally, the book stumbles. Some characters appear and are lost too quickly in the revolutions of the zodiac calendar, making their backstories hard to hold on to (although a family tree would have been helpful in alleviating some of that). Other times bits of Mormon phraseology creep in where they shouldn’t (at one point a Baptist minister offers to pray over a man’s dying wife and asks, “would you like me to be the voice” in a way that seems a bit too home-teachery). Sisters Majors tends to think in run-on sentences that often take up paragraphs at a time and give the book a rushed feeling. There are even odd moments of over-explaining, like when a fictional Chinese stake is being formed in 2013 and the author stops to explain what a stake means to Mormons.
But overall the book is ambitious and heartfelt. Sister Majors’ love for Asian cultures and peoples, her love for the gospel, and her own personal optimism make The Year of the Boar an enjoyable read. Full of interesting historical tidbits about Japan and China, and small period vignettes in Texas and France and even Algeria, this is an ideal book for book clubs and summer reading. It is, as the author insists, very real. And very good.
*This is the first book review I have written after reading the work on my Kindle. Since there are no page numbers and the “high-light location” numbers are not reliable I have zero idea how to cite quotations. The best source I could find for how to cite a Kindle ebook was this website which said to reference sections. I’m still figuring out how to figure out what section things are in. So for more details about the quotations and references above you’ll just have to read the book yourself!