The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is equally about place as people.  The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

The novel quickly begins to revolve around the relationship between Susan’s brothers, Jim and Bob Burgess, who both became lawyers and left the small Maine town for New York City.  Jim, the family favorite, made his fame as a brilliant criminal lawyer early in life by successfully defending a guilty-as-sin singer, in a trial that should remind readers of O.J. Simpson.  And yet, his success as a lawyer has come at the cost of his personal relationships.  Jim is, to put it as nicely as possible, a big jerk.

Bob, in comparison, has settled for a less glamorous life, living in the shadow of his brother and putting up with Jim’s constant abuse.  Divorced by his wife Pam over his infertility, he wanders through his days drinking more than he should and watching his neighbors, while still seeking for a meaningful relationship with Jim.

Unlike her brothers, Susan Burgess has remained in Shirley Falls, where she clings tightly and angrily to an image of life that she feels slipping away.  When the town becomes host to an influx of Somali refugees, the native residents are forced to learn to interact with a new culture that seems impossibly foreign to their own.  For Susan, a cold and hard woman who cannot even accept Unitarians, this seems impossible.  When her son Zach, a lonely and silent boy that is dominated by his mother’s anger, throws a pig’s head through the window of the town’s mosque during Ramadan, Susan calls on Bob and Jim to come help with his legal defense.  Forced into returning to Shirley Falls, Jim and Bob struggle with their adult relationship with their sister and their memories of the town and the freak accident that killed their father 30 years prior.  Although their adult lives have been purposefully separate, their shared guilt at their involvement in their father’s death both binds and separates them.  Uniting once again for the sake of family brings up these old wounds and throws them into the light of revelation.

Elizabeth Strout is  a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (Olive Kitteridge, 2008) and this excellence of writing shows in The Burgess Boys.  Although the actual events of the novel are rather sparse, the prose is captivating and filled with gentle insights into human nature.  By far, the hero of the novel is Bob, who gently plays the role of Switzerland between Susan and Jim.  He wades through the novel with his gentle imperfections, drawing the reader along as he tries to draw meaning from the failures of his marriage and family.

Bob was not a young man, and he knew about loss. He knew the quiet that arrived, the blinding force of panic, and he knew that each loss brought with it some odd, barely acknowledged sense of release. He was not an especially contemplative person, and he did not dwell on this. But by October there were many days when the swell of rightness, loose-limbedness, and gentle gravity came to him. It recalled to him being a child, when he found one day he could finally color within the lines.

As Zach’s trial approaches, Strout brings us further into Bob’s life, exploring his love of New York City and his failed marriage to Pam, who, like Jim, continues to befriend Bob for her own selfish purposes.  Although Bob’s loneliness shines through the story, his introspection keeps the story moving along.  You cannot help but love him for his acute observations and good-natured ability to be the middle ground between the extremes of his family.

He thought of the people in the world who felt saved by city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

By choosing to center the plot around a hate crime, Strout manages to inject a moral tone and a contemporary feel into her books without preaching.  When she writes about culture clash, she does it with the hand of someone who loves her characters and sees the humanity in all of them.  Reading The Burgess Boys in 2016, as the U.S. heads toward a heated election where refugees are a central issue, feels particularly relevant.  Yet Strout reaches into the heads of all of the interested parties, doing as much justice to the culture-shocked Somali refugees as the entrenched white residents of Shirley Falls that resent the changing culture of their town.

About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to be borne as one bore bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent.

While the political background of the novel could easy drag down the story, ultimately, The Burgess Boys is about a family that suffers because of its long-held secrets.  When the secrets reveal themselves by the end of the novel, as secrets must, the family moves into a satisfying place of redemption, while the reader leaves with just a bit more wisdom about the complexity of love.

“You have family”, Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

So it is, Bob Burgess.  So it is.

  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: March 26, 2013
  • Hardcover: 326 pages
  • ISBN: 1400067685
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, literary fiction

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