Friday, August 30, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Olive Kitteredge, has once again written a complex tale with unforgettable characters. The story is set partly in Shirley Falls, Maine, which is the childhood home of the two Burgess brothers as well as a sister who still resides there. This fictitious New England town is probably modeled on the real Lewiston, Maine, once bustling with textile mills and abundant industry. This affluence began to change after World War I. The mills began moving South seeking cheaper labor and newer technologies. Chain stores such as Woolworth's W.T. Grant, S.S. Kresge, J.C. Penney and Sears Roebuck soon abandoned the vibrant downtown and left it deserted. By the 1970s, there were few jobs to be had and the town's young were fleeing for employment elsewhere. (,_Maine)

But in 2001, a family of Somali refugees moved to Lewiston. They beckoned others to come and start businesses and raise families in the quiet surroundings. They populated the once crime-ridden and abandoned downtown. Soon many families of Somalis came, followed by Sudanese, Congolese and other Africans. This previously all-white town in a state that is the second whitest in the nation (Vermont is number 1) had to accommodate people of a different race, culture and language. As of 2009, 4000 new immigrants had moved to Lewiston since 2001, and dozens arrive each month. They have re-vitalized the town with restaurants and shops and contribute to the town's economy. ("The Refugees Who Saved Lewiston," Newsweek Magazine, January 16, 2009)

But in those early years, racism simmered. Resentments were incurred by fears that the new residents would take the few existing jobs in town. Working class families who themselves were facing hard times begrudged the Somalis the government subsidies they were receiving. In July of 2006, a young man threw a frozen pig's head through the door of a make-shift mosque, setting off a chain of events that is fictionalized in Strout's book.

There are a number of parallel themes in The Burgess Boys. Alienation and the question of what constitutes "home" are two such motifs. Brothers Bob and Jim have both left rural Maine to attend college on the east coast. Bob is an attorney who works for Legal Aid. Jim is a prosperous lawyer who took on a case very similar to that of O.J. Simpson's. He is, however, disillusioned with himself and the glitzy life he leads. By contrast, Susan has not gone to college. Indeed, she has never left her native state. Too poor to even heat her house adequately in winter, she lives as a divorced single mother of a quiet and disturbed teenage boy, Zack. This is the very boy who commits the hate crime.

Strout never gives us a clear reason for the boy's act. The narrator leads us to believe that he may have committed the hate crime to please his estranged father. We never really know why he acted as he did.  Parental bigotry is a possible factor: both mother and father make disparaging racial remarks. There is also the mirror image of Jim and Bob trying to achieve a sense of peace with their pasts as are the Somalis.

One of the finest aspects of the book is the exploration of the sibling relationship. All his life, Bob has taken the blame for his father's death.  This occurred when he was four years old. He was apparently at the wheel when the car rolled down the hill, killing his father. At the time, Jim was 8. Susan was the youngest and the least favored by their mother. As adults, we see the adult siblings re-enacting their childhood roles.  All have been traumatized by past events that no one talks about.

The Burgess Boys is a multi-layered family drama that takes on larger, societal issues. As in Olive Kitteridge, Strout's characters are all too human as they tackle life's tragedies. In her latest novel, Elizabeth Strout illuminates the dangers inherent in "the unexamined life."

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