Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Harpswell Cove, Maine
Elizabeth Strout excels at creating unlikable but emotionally compelling characters, each one uniquely fallible and true to life. Her books speak to me personally since some are set in New York City, where I grew up, and all are set in Maine, my home of 15 years. A Maine native, Bates College graduate and former lawyer, Strout resides primarily in NYC and writes beautifully about what she knows. Her latest novel, The Burgess Boys, lived up to my high expectations (in stores on March 26, 2013).

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:
My backyard in March
"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." 
"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.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

27 comments:

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Wonderful review! Those quotes you picked were beautiful too. This one is going on my list as well!

Cat said...

The photo of your backyard is so calming. I can just imagine how quiet it must be wearing a blanket of snow.

Barrie said...

I loved Olive Kitteridge, so I'm definitely reading this book! I enjoyed both your review and the anecdote about how you met the author and got your hands on the ARC. Oh, and thank you for the links!

A Cuban In London said...

I loved your review. Kudos for that little Somalis/Somalians note. Love good, old, well-round characters. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Gloria said...

I love this review is really interesting. Im sure I heard before about Elizabeth Stout but I have to translate to spanish some titles are different than english but she sounds so good:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson and Barrie, let me know what you think of it. Thanks for hosting, Barrie.

Cat, it's snowing lightly on and off today. I hope we get more for skiing. It is lovely when the snow is fresh.

ACIL, I'd be curious about the Somali immigration experience in London and how it differs from here.

Gloria, I'm sure her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner would be translated into many languages by now. The title Olive Kitteridge is the name of the protagonist so it should be the same in Spanish. This new one isn't published yet, even in English, and would take time to translate if that happens.

openid said...

I'm chilly just looking at your photos! But they are lovely!

Such beautiful imagery in this book--it felt very calming to read. I wonder, was the entire book like that?

Alyssa

troutbirder said...

Definitely interesting. Way behind as usual I just finished The Poisonwood Bible. Something here strikes a cord. Also in this evening papers IBM Rochester is moving manufacturing to Mexico. The large plant here employs mostly Somalis in the manufacturing division...

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, good question! The writing throughout the book was good enough that it was hard to pick just a few examples. I also loved how she referred to an old lady as "thin as kindling." A big part of the book is dialogue, which she does well too. It's a literary book but moves at a good pace without anything superfluous. It's very readable. Strout is one of my favorite authors...in case you haven't guessed!

troutbirder, that's bad news about those jobs going south. I'd be curious about your reaction to this book since you have an even bigger Somali population in Minnesota, referenced in this book and Maria Padian's. I'd also like to hear what you thought of The Poisonwood Bible, another favorite book of mine as you know.

Maria Padian said...

Wonderful review, Sarah, and thanks for the link to the PW essay. It helped me better understand her ambivalence about Maine.

Steph Su said...

Elizabeth Strout came to my college creative writing class to talk about Olive Kitteridge, back before it won the Pulitzer. Admittedly I wasn't too big a fan of her writing back then, but my reading tastes have certainly changed, and maybe it may be better suited for me now.

☆sapphire said...

Hi

The novel sounds interesting. The United States is often referred to as the “Great Melting Pot,”but I didn't know that there were many refugees from Somalia in Maine. I've always admired human diversity and multiculturalism in America make for a rich tapestry! And the tapestry looks very dynamic!

Sarah Laurence said...

Maria, thanks for lending me the ARC!

Steph, it would be harder to relate to Strout’s aging, disillusioned characters while still in school. Now that you’ve been working, you might try it again. I plan to reread Olive when I’m older too.

Sapphire, I do love how my country has welcomed immigrants from many nations (mine came from England/Switzerland and Lithuania) and my husband is a new citizen, but there are many illegal immigrants who deserve citizenship. Hopefully Obama will lead us to open our gates wider.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Great review!! And I love your backyard :)

tina said...

You do the best reviews!

walk2write said...

I love the rhythm of her writing. It sounds like a wonderful read. Who can't relate to a dysfunctional family? Community? Country?

Janet/Plantaliscious said...

Beautiful writing, and an author new to me, so thank you! Your photos almost make me wish I lived somewhere that got regular "proper" snow, but only almost ;-)

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Meant to add - I LOVE the Central Park photo!

David Cranmer said...

Do you write reviews for any online magazines? You should, Sarah. I want to drop money on every book you spotlight here. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

OE, Tina, Janet, thanks!

W2W, Strout get dysfunctional on all 3 levels, but she’s not without hope.

David, thank you! I have thought about reviewing professionally, but then I’d have to post negative reviews. I couldn’t do that to another writer.

Rose said...

Sounds like another addition to my growing must-read list! I'm so glad you included the quotes--her description is beautifully phrased.

Amanda said...

sounds dark, gripping and complex. there is a large somali community in minneapolis as well and sadly there was a racial incident in a high school recently that made the news.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

This sounds like a good read. We have a spot nearby, Burgess Woods. There are many Burgess boys around, too! Much fun.
Cheers from Cottage Country!

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

Oh, yes. Your photos are wonderful!!!!

Booksnyc said...

wonderful review! You have sold me on this author - I actually have never read her books.

Jean Grant said...

So happy to find your blog although I may not have time to often read it. Enjoyed your point about how using Bible as a window jam makes Margaret Estaver human.
Jean

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, Amanda, Jen, Booknyc, a belated thank you!

Jean, welcome to my blog and thank you!