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Tuesday, July 9, 2013
The Burgess Boys; Elizabeth Strout
Title: The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publication Year: 2013
Publisher: Random House
Reader: Cassandra Campbell (excellent)
Source: NetGalley and library (audio)
Date Completed: June - 2013
To understand the 50-something "Burgess Men", one needs to go back to their early beginnings.
When The Burgess Boys and sister Susan were very young, Jim was just 8 and twins, Bob and Susan, just 4, a freak accident took the life of their father. The children were in the family vehicle, when something happened and the car rolled downhill killing their father. The blame and shame felt by the children while growing up, was the major reason the "boys" fled Maine as soon as they could after college. Both are lawyers in New York, but that is about all that these two brothers have in common. Bob has lived in his brother's shadow all of his life.
Sister Susan never left their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine. It's a town that has seen a lot of change, especially post-9/11 when an influx of people arrived from Somalia. The adjustments by both long time residents and the Somalian population was difficult for many people. It was made more difficult by an incident that occurred at a makeshift mosque in Shirley Falls.
A frozen pig's head is thrown into the mosque during Ramadan while people are worshipping there. It is Susan's 19-year old son Zach who is charged with the hate-crime. Susan immediately calls brother Jim for help, but he dispatches brother Bob since Jim and his wife are about to leave on vacation. It is this event that gets the Burgess Boys back to their childhood town, and it is how us readers learn about their past.
While the hate crime, the trial and outcome are an important part of the story, it is the characters and the interactions that make this novel so interesting. I found divorced sister Susan to be bitter and mean-spirited. Jim was arrogant and had an inflated sense of self-importance. I hated that he was always belittling his brother Bob. Bob, on the other hand, was the character I liked the most. He seemed like the kind of person I would warm up to early on. He was emotionally wounded, very kind, and although divorced with no children, he was still on speaking terms with his former wife. It is Bob who has blamed himself for his father's death all these years. It was hard to believe Susan was his twin, they seemed so different.
The Burgess Boys is definitely a character driven novel. Readers who enjoy stories about family dysfunction, past and present should enjoy this well written novel. Although racism is a theme as well, it is not addressed in a heavy handed way, nor is it preachy. I enjoyed learning about Somalia's history and people.
I also enjoyed Strout's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Olive Kitteridge, a short story collection about a school teacher from Maine.