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. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewiston,_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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