Family Dysfunction, Maine-Style: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

book cover image The Burgess BoysElizabeth’s Strout‘s fourth novel, The Burgess Boys, with its Maine setting and its themes of trust, home, and family, is as impressive and thought-provoking as her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge – ranging more widely through large themes of religion and race, while still delving deep into the hearts and minds of her characters.

The author takes a real incident as the launching point of the story. In small-town Maine, a frozen pig’s head from a slaughterhouse is rolled in through the front door of a mosque, contaminating the space with an animal that is considered unclean by practicing Muslims.  But she changes most of the actual details of the controversial incident that took place in Lewiston, Maine, where Somali immigrants have been congregating over the last decade. She creates the fictional Maine town of Shirley Falls (also the setting for her first novel, Amy and Isabelle); gives it a large community of Somali new arrivals like Lewiston’s; and makes the thrower of the head a lonely, 19-year-old boy instead of a 33-year-old man.

The only similarities between the real person involved in the incident, who committed suicide the following year, and the fictional character, Zach, is their race (white), home (both born and raised in Maine), and the confusion everyone in town, in Maine, and eventually in the national media, is left in about the incident. Prank or hate crime? Clueless or malicious?

Maine, even more than other New England states, has a reputation for being an insular state, 98% white, with an unwelcoming attitude towards anyone “from away” (anywhere other than Maine.) Elizabeth Strout rounds out her picture of a changing Maine with characters from all sides of the divide.

There are those who are born there and leave, like the Burgess boys – Jim, the older brother, a high school star who went on to become a famous lawyer and the younger, hapless brother, Bob, who has a horrible shadow over his life after their father’s death. There are those who stay, like Zach and his divorced mother, Susan, Bob’s twin, who live in the house and town Susan and her brothers had grown up in. Then there are those who come from away and leave, like some of the homesick Somali men and women, and those who come back after being away and stay, like Margaret Estaver, the Unitarian minister who is learning the Somali language to help the new community within a community.

Coming back to Shirley Falls from Brooklyn, New York, to help Susan in her hour of need after Zach has committed this crazy, incomprehensible act at the mosque and hasn’t yet turned himself in, causes acute distress for Bob – who is available but lacks self-confidence – and acute annoyance for Jim – who has a high-powered position at a legal firm and can’t easily get away. (Even Jim’s vacations with his wife Helen are usually also with the boss and his wife, to strengthen Jim’s ties at the firm.) When the Burgess boys come back to Maine, big-city prejudices butt up against small-town ones – both sides defensive and on edge – while the conflict between new and old, home and away, plays out on a larger scale in the swirling controversy over Zach’s hate crime or prank. In this powerful story, readers get to know more about all of the Burgess family members and their pasts, and also the perspectives of a few people “from away” like Jim’s empty-nester wife Helen and Abdikarim from the mosque – who thinks of Mogadishu as home and who may be from the most “away” as residents of Shirley Falls can imagine.

As the Burgesses, Zach, the Somali community, and the other residents of Shirley Falls weather the media storm and each new crisis, events of the present illuminate events of the past. Much is left open to interpretation but readers are left with hope for the future.

If you liked the clash of eco-politics and family ties in The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass or the muddied controversies in Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, or if you just like thoughtful novels that don’t come down too easily on either side of life’s big questions, you will love this memorable novel by Elizabeth Strout.

Read a LibraryThing interview with Elizabeth Strout about The Burgess Boys here.

The Burgess Boys
Strout, Elizabeth
Random House
March 26, 2013
978-1-4000-6768-8
336 pp., hardcover
$26.00 U.S.

Disclosure: I received a free advance reading copy of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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13 thoughts on “Family Dysfunction, Maine-Style: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout”

  1. This sounds interesting, especially as it’s somewhat based on reality. I hadn’t heard the news, and I’m almost surprised to hear about the dislike, it’s not a state I’d identify with strict ideas about outsiders (whether that be because of my Brit-ness or just me I don’t know). Looking at it fictionally must give the author quite a bit of space to delve into the issues without hurting people so much in the process.

    1. The stereotype about Maine’s insularity is exaggerated, like all stereotypes, I guess! The author acknowledges it, but doesn’t buy into it. I should have probably said I’m guessing that the author based the incident in the book on something that really happened, because it just seemed too coincidental not to be.

  2. I am unfamiliar with the details of the crime. I have family from near Lewiston so I bet this book will be talked about this summer when I go to visit. I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge so I hope to get to this book soon.

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