Book Club Guide—The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

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Elizabeth Strout just keeps turning out one book club–worthy title after another. Olive Kitteredge and My Name Is Lucy Barton are the more likely and well-known choices for a club pick, but The Burgess Boys raises enough interesting questions for your group to consider it as well, especially if your club likes legal fiction. In this 2013 novel, one thoughtless act by a teenager brings to the surface a host of issues for the Burgess family and the small community of Shirley Falls, Maine. Let these topics guide your discussion. (Click here to read The Snail’s article on The Burgess Boys.)


Immigration and Refugees:

Many of the main characters are refugees in some sense, having run away from something in their lives. What has each character run away from?

What are the biggest challenges faced by the Somali immigrants in Shirley Falls? How is this similar to the way you see immigrant populations treated in your own community, state, or country?

How do the Shirley Falls residents view their new Somali neighbors? In turn, how do the Somalis view the Americans? Is this a realistic view of these two cultures, their differences, and their understanding of each other?

The contrast between Shirley Falls, Maine, and New York City is prominent featured throughout the novel. What are the differences between the two? What are the characters’ perceptions of each place? Do those perceptions change as the novel progresses?

Parents and children:

What does the novel say about the role of parents in their children’s lives? Are parents responsible for what their kids do and turn out to be?

Are there any parents in this novel that do an adequate job of parenting?

Guilt and forgiveness:

The novel never really gives a solid reason behind Zach’s act—why he threw the pig’s head into the mosque. Why do you think he did it?

Why does Abdikaram Ahmed ultimately forgive Zach and become his advocate?

Brotherly/sisterly bonds:

Why does Bob put up his brother Jim’s treatment of him? Is this a typical sibling relationship?

Why is this a story of the “Burgess Boys,” and not their sister, Susan?

What is the nature of the relationship between the twin siblings, Bob and Susan? Why do they have trouble relating to each other through most of the novel?

What do you think will happen to the Burgess siblings after the novel ends?


The novel doesn’t paint a pretty picture of marriage, since all three siblings—Jim, Bob, and Susan—are in or have been in unsuccessful marriages. So, according to the book, is a good marriage possible? What would it look like?

Do any of the siblings stand a chance of being in a successful relationship in the future?

Why is Bob obsessed with his downstairs neighbors, the couple whose fight he witnesses at the beginning of the novel?


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