The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout

One of the things recent events in Boston has highlighted is that people can be quick to jump to conclusions based on very little evidence, or – as some puppets on Avenue Q sang – ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’. Maybe ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Ignorant of Other People’s Cultures’ might have been more factually accurate but often the outcomes are very similar.

Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel explores this idea through a wave of Somali immigration to the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine on America’s east coast. Shirley Falls was once home to the Burgess family – older brother Jim and twins, Bob and Susie. Jim left for New York as soon as their mother died, with Bob not long behind him. Susie has remained in Shirley Falls where she lives with her son, Zach, his father having left them and returned to his ancestral country of Sweden.

Early in the novel, Jim receives a telephone call from Susie which he relays to his wife, Helen and brother, Bob.

“Our nephew, Zachary Olson, has thrown a frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque. During prayer. During Ramadan. Susan says Zach doesn’t know what Ramadan is, which is completely believable – Susan didn’t know what it was until she read about this in the paper. The pig’s head was bloody, starting to melt, it’s stained their carpet, and they don’t have the money to buy a new one. They have to clean it seven times because of the holy law. That’s the story, you guys.”

Helen looked at Bob. Puzzlement came to her face. “Why would that be all over the papers, Jim?” she finally asked, softly.

“Do you get it?” Jim asked, just as quietly turning to her. “It’s a hate crime, Helen.”

So the novel gains two major themes – that of immigration and ignorance, on both sides – and of family and what it means to be part of one, whether that be from the point of view of a spouse, a parent, a child, or a sibling.

The Burgess family is an interesting, although I would suggest fairly typical, family. Jim is a hot shot lawyer, still living off a big televised case some years previously. He married into money and continually feels the pressure to make sure that he’s earning and paying the family’s way. Bob works in legal aid and is the butt of the family’s jokes – particularly Jim who continually jibes him, referring to him as ‘slob dog’ and calling his apartment a ‘graduate dorm’. Bob was responsible, aged 4, for a tragic accident which killed their father, something he has had to bear all his life. Suzie works in a shop and has a lodger – Mrs. Drinkwater – to help make ends meet.

The Burgess Boys is a mature novel that successfully explores the actions and reactions of a family in crisis. Through the family members and the people closest to them, Strout creates a group of fully rounded humans who bicker and support and hurt each other and love. The focus on the family means that the issue of immigration and cultural understanding never threatens to overwhelm the novel and make it feel as though Strout is preaching to us as opposed to telling a story. This is an engaging novel well worthy of a few hours of your time.

Thanks to Random House (US) for the proof copy.