|Harpswell Cove, Maine|
|Central Park, New York City|
Kind Bob and slick Jim grew up poor in Maine and are now lawyers in New York City. Their estranged sister, Susan, remained in Shirley Falls, a working class town (modeled on Lewiston) with a recent influx of refugees from Somalia. Brewing racial tension boils over when Susan's teenaged son, Zach, tosses a pig head into a Muslim mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. A testament to Strout's literary skill and audacity, Zach is a surprisingly sympathetic character. His deplorable act is put in perspective as the European-American and Somali-American characters strive to understand a culture foreign to theirs.
The Burgess Boys taught me a lot about Somalis (NOT Somalians) and their history of civil war, second wave migration and struggles to retain their culture (ie. to be Somalis and not "hyphenated people: Somali-American.") The book is narrated from multiple limited points of view, including a Somali elder and a Somali mother. The author also jumps inside the heads of "liberal" New Yorkers, whose initial concern for the Somalis fades into smug indifference. The most likable character in the book is Margaret, a minister who seeks to bridge the racial gap, but even she is lampooned for using The Bible as a window jam. It makes her human. The multiple head hopping was rarely confusing and added depth and texture to the story without losing the focus on the central characters. Most of the book follows "bighearted" Bob Burgess and the people important to him.
Given the initial set up, I was expecting a novel about racism and religious intolerance, but The Burgess Boys is first and foremost a book about dysfunctional family. The pig head incident works primarily as a plot catalyst to bring the three siblings together in Maine. This present day crisis is framed by a tragedy from their past, which overshadows their lives and contorts their relationships. One small weakness, in this otherwise well structured novel, is that the pig head plot line was too easily resolved. Also the prologue was unnecessary and contained spoilers. I'd save the prologue for when you finish this marvelous book and wish there were more pages to read.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout glitters with literary diamonds:
"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."
My backyard in March
"About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to borne as one borne bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent."
"The November sun - not high in the sky, but coming at the town from an angle - sliced across the streets, across the lawns that were still green, fell on half-sunken pumpkins left on stoops from Halloween, shone against the tree trunks and their bare limbs, beamed through the clear air, making mica specks in the old sidewalks glitter."
"She pictured a dandelion gone by, the white, almost airless pieces of her family scattered so far. The key to contentment was to never ask why; she had learned that long ago."
"The facts didn't matter. Their stories mattered, and each of their stories belonged to each of them alone."Reviewers Disclosure: I met Elizabeth Stout when she gave a talk at our library about writing her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, and two other novels. She was charming, intelligent and modest and nothing like her overbearing, smug characters. Publisher Weekly has a fascinating biographical essay on Elizabeth Strout. I borrowed an ARC of The Burgess Boys from my friend, Maria Padian, who has written another wonderful book about Somalis in Maine, Out of Nowhere, but hers is young adult fiction. I'd recommend reading the two books together; both are excellent.
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