A pivotal event that binds The Burgess Boys together is precipitated by Zachary Olson, a brooding white teenager in the fictional town of Shirley Falls, Maine. Zach throws the frozen head of a pig into a mosque during Ramadan prayers where new Somali immigrants to the town are worshipping. Neither the quiet Zach nor his mother, Susan, is entirely sure what made the boy come unhinged and commit this hate crime.
For her part, Susan is the only one of the three Burgess children who has remained in Shirley Falls, the town in which she and her siblings, brothers Jim and Bob, grew up. The brothers have moved to New York City. Jim, the oldest, is an extremely successful lawyer in Manhattan, having made his name successfully defending a clearly guilty celebrity. Bob, Susan's twin, has also studied law but he doesn't possess Jim's fire and works in the city as a legal aide.
The siblings' relationships are defined by a terrible childhood trauma: when they were very young and sitting in their parents' car, Bob inadvertently released the brakes, which caused the car to roll over and kill their father, who was out checking the mail. Their childhoods and, indeed, their entire lives are shaped by this singular tragedy. When the brothers' nephew, Zach, commits the hate crime at the mosque, the Burgess brothers are pulled back to Maine, to rescue the kid from what might be harsh punishment. And while back home, the Burgess siblings are forced to confront their past.
Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of one of my all-time favorite books, Olive Kitteridge, is in familiar territory here: the state of Maine is as much a presence as any of her characters and her portrayal of the state and its people is a delight. Strout is a master at the subtle dynamics of small-town lives and here, too, the town of Shirley Falls and its residents are vividly portrayed.
Strout excels at distilling entire complex ideas into their purest form. She uses this gift to succinctly contrast the successful and well-educated Jim against the undereducated and naive Zach Olson. Just one simple word that Zach speaks reveals volumes about his ignorance: "Somalian." That's it. That's all it takes to show the forces Zach and the entire town of Shirley Falls are up against. Zach doesn't understand who these new immigrants are, doesn't know what the Somalis' arrival means for his own chances of success. And it is to Strout's credit that despite all this, Zach doesn't come across as an ignorant boor. She shows the reader that decades of stagnation in lily-white Maine have played a part in molding Zach into the confused young man he has become.
The Burgess Boys suffers from the weight of too much expectation. It doesn't have the delicate nuance that Kitteridge did. And while Olive was not a particularly likeable character all the time, there's something about the Burgess boys that makes them static portraits from beginning to end. Unlikeable characters are fine but Jim Burgess is so downright nasty and his brother so darned subservient, that these singular characteristics color their whole personalities. When the Burgess brothers return to Shirley Falls and confront their tragic past, additional revelations about the childhood accident do surface. Yet there isn't much growth or evolution in these brothers, making empathy tough for the reader. Jim's wife, Helen, is also mean and selfish, a self-centered Connecticut socialite, and it's hard to take her anxieties seriously. But Strout is on much surer ground with the Maine residents: Susan is the one personality who shines the image of a long-suffering single mother (her husband has left for his native Sweden) trying to make sense of her son's crime, to make do and make ends meet, to come to terms with her dependence on her brothers' largesse Strout paints all of these with grace.
The dialog, too, is superb and in Strout's trademark style, entirely unpretentious. The Burgess Boys is an insightful examination of how our childhoods shape and define us even as we struggle to shake loose the ghosts of our past. Fans of Elizabeth Strout will want to read this one even if it might not rank among her very best. Visiting the hardy Puritan New England state of Maine is always fun in Strout's able hands. As the Shirley Falls residents make room for shifting demographics, they never lose their courage and grit, their moxie. No wonder that bitter beverage is also the state's official soft drink.
This review was originally published in April 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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