The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Like many readers, having enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, I was looking forward to reading her next work. Rather than referencing Olive Kitteridge, which this book has very little in common with, The Burgess Boys arguably has more connections with Strout’s own life, growing up in small towns in Maine, studying law and moving to New York city.

The Burgess BoysJim and Bob Burgess also have little in common except that they both studied law and moved to New York, one achieving notoriety, the other not. Their younger sister Susan never left Shirley Falls, Maine; they are now all late middle age, the trajectory of their lives influenced early on in childhood when Bob(4) and Jim(8) witnessed the death of their father as the car they were in, with their younger sister in the back, rolled forward down the family driveway and killed him.

Two thirds of his family had not escaped, this is what Bob thought. He and Susan – which included her kid – were doomed from the day their father died.

The two boys leave their hometown to pursue careers in New York city and have little to do with their sister, until a thoughtless act by her teenage son Zach, lands him in trouble with the police and the law and looks set to incite racial tension among the citizens of Shirley Falls and their Somali immigrant community.

He thought of all the people in the world who felt they’d been saved by a 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.

Prior to the family drama Jim’s star was in the ascendant, he could do no wrong, however an indulged ego wins few favours long term and his good fortune risks changing course.

It is a story of family ties, separation, isolation, of fear and its consequence and the challenges of an evolving community, how newcomers don’t always bring out the best in their hosts, requiring as they do, new understanding and acceptance.

It was an uncomfortable start for me I admit, taking on a story that portrays a small town’s varying and little embracing of an immigrant community and the committing of a disrespectful act against it’s religious beliefs is fraught with danger in itself. Topical perhaps, but difficult to accurately or sufficiently portray balanced points of view.

Somali USStrout presents the family dilemma and while giving them an audible voice, keeps somewhat at a distance from the community Zach Burgess has upset, though at least she does not go so far as to incite the aggrieved community to inflame their response. But the story lacks something for having touched on a community in such an indignant way and failing to give them much of a voice,  the one exception stretching the imagination in authenticity a little too far.

Abdikarim, who had attended only because one of Haweeya’s sons came running to get him, saying his parents insisted he come to the park, had been puzzled by what he saw: so many people smiling at him. To look him straight in the face and smile felt to Abdikarim to display an intimacy he was not comfortable with. But he had been here long enough to know it was the way Americans were, like large children, and these large children in the park were very nice.

Not knowing much about Somali immigration to the US, I found these two articles helpful, particularly the former in it’s comparison between US and European immigrants.

What Makes Somali’s So Different? – an interesting article by Michael Scott Moore on the subject of Somali immigrants to the US.

A ray of hope – Somalia’s Future – an analysis by The Economist in Feb 2012 on the future within Somalia itself.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided kindly by the publisher via NetGalley.

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13 thoughts on “The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

  1. I have to admit to not being all that enamoured with Olive Kitteridge. Representing any community from the outside is difficult and a risk. Points for trying I guess.

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    • I think here it’s more like scratching the surface, but not quite enough to provoke a good discussion. It would have been interesting, albeit uncomfortable to go deeper inside the characters within the community, with all their diversity of thought and opinion.

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  2. I tend to agree with Nelle. It ‘s very hard to write something from the outside looking in, but I don’t think it’s impossible. These types of books seem to be very common at the moment. Having yet had the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge is on my TBR. That’s what I love about your blog Claire. You introduce me to so many different kinds of books and I enjoy your take on each one. Did you read The Help? What did you think of it?

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    • I wanted to talk about the book without knowing her inspiration, but now that I’m done I’ve learnt she was inspired by an incident in Lewiston, Maine, where a 33-year-old man threw a frozen pig’s head into a mosque, subsequently committing suicide before the case came to trial. She talks about encouraging her students to write against the grain, and spent time herself reading the history of Somalia and attending lectures in New York and Maine in her effort to write against the grain, thus it’s research based knowledge and not one of personal experience.

      Many writers successfully get inside the heads of people through research, historical novelists do it all the time, perhaps it works best when it is something they are intensely passionate about. I think in this story, the interest lies more with understanding the young nephew and his two Uncles, i.e. the characters that are part of the Maine population, which is what she knows well (and comes out strongly in Olive Kitteridge) her previous novel. But this book doesn’t really take on the immigrant characters, it rests in safe territory.

      I have read The Help and found it compelling reading, the author definitely wasn’t afraid to take on ALL her characters and I admire her for that, for having a go and provoking the many discussions that arose from it.

      However, I am just waiting for the literary and cinematic revolution that must occur soon, very likely this century, when those oppressed in the 20th century start to write and film their versions of stories in the mainstream, those written for example by people of colour, by Arabs, by immigrants, where they show themselves rising up and portray their oppressors in the manner they perceived them. I just watched Django today and enjoyed it, though it’s still some way from the kind of thing I am talking about.

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  3. I’ve been curious about The Burgess Boys because I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge — I thought she had a good vision into the “little” things that ebb and flow, and in many ways, define day to day life. I will almost certainly give this a read.

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    • Wonders of the internet, I was able to listen to an interview with her and a radio talk show host speaking about the new book and then people called in, all of whom wanted to talk about Olive Kitteridge and said very much the same thing as you Steve, there are many readers who recognised familiar faces behind the characters in Olive Kitteridge and who look forward to reading this for the same reason. It makes me wonder if they will recognise the siblings of the Burgess family as well.

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