Sibling Rivalries in Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys


I did my civic duty earlier this week, giving up my life as a normal citizen for a few days and answering the summons to jury duty. As I headed to the courthouse on Monday morning, I grabbed a book suitable for the occasion; I wanted a good legal page-turner to keep me busy while I awaited my call to serve as a real-life juror in the American legal system. I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys, which I knew was about two attorney brothers who come to the aid of their teenage nephew after he commits a crime. Perfect. And, since the courthouse’s WiFi system wouldn’t allow me to blog (see my post earlier this week about banned books—and Big Brother), I had plenty of extra downtime to devote to my novel. As I read, I waited for my name to be called for the next jury panel—and I waited. Meanwhile, I waited for the thrilling action of a trial to take center-stage in The Burgess Boys—and I waited. By day two, it was clear: the courts weren’t going to select me as an official juror, and The Burgess Boys wasn’t going to deliver any courtroom drama.

Click here for a discussion guide to The Burgess Boys.

Click here for a discussion guide to The Burgess Boys.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. In her newest novel, Elizabeth Strout does again what she did so beautifully in her Pulitzer Prize–winning 2008 collection of short stories, Olive Kitteredge: she turns the lens on a few characters from a small Maine town, studying their lives, their relationships, and the histories that have made them the people they are today. What seems to be a story about a hate crime with federal consequences turns out to be a story of families, couples, parents, and children—and our troubled bonds with the people we’re supposed to love most.

The action turns on a thoughtless prank by 19-year-old Zach, the Burgess men’s nephew; during Ramadan, he throws a frozen pig’s head through the front door of a Muslim mosque, where the small town’s growing Somali population gathers for prayers. As the town reacts, the boy is arrested, and brothers Jim and Bob Burgess travel from New York to help, it seems this will be a novel about cultural difference, and the great divide that continues to exist between Americans and the third-world peoples we often fear. And, to a great extent, it is. Abdikaram Ahmed, who has found a home in Shirley Falls after escaping the refugee camps of his homeland, feels the threat of his outsider status wherever he turns:

Again, the incomprehension. He came to understand this had a danger altogether different from the dangers in the camp. Living in a world where constantly one turned and touched incomprehension—they did not comprehend, he did not comprehend—gave the air the lift of uncertainty and this seemed to wear away something in him, always he felt unsure of what he wanted, what he thought, even what he felt.

Mainly through the perspective of Abdikaram, the novel raises interesting questions about the ongoing crisis in Somalia, U.S. intervention, and the plight of Somali refugees. Somali terrorists have, in fact, made world-news headlines just this week with the deadly mall shooting in Kenya, which, the U.S. government is telling us, has implications for Americans and others throughout the world.

But, gradually, the novel shifts its focus inward, away from the community turmoil caused by Zach’s act and instead toward the inner lives of the people around him. As it turns out, the siblings from the small town of Shirley Falls live under the same shadow of incomprehension that their new Somali neighbor describes. Bob and Jim are also refugees, having run away years ago from their hometown and a crisis that shaped the whole family: the death of their father, caused by one of the boys (but which one?). Now, with the brothers’ return to Shirley Falls, they must—along with the sister who stayed there—face the fears, the isolation, the incomprehension that they’ve avoided for so long.

The Burgess Boys probes the difficult relations between neighbors, between siblings, between parents and children, and between husbands and wives. The novel seems intent on teaching by negative example: what can we do to keep things from going so terribly wrong, as it has for almost every character we encounter? And the relationships that appear the most beyond repair are the marriages of Bob, Susan, and eventually Jim. Strout delves deeply into the story of each individual’s marriage, including Susan’s upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Drinkwater; Bob’s downstairs neighbors, Adriana and her abusive husband; and Bob’s ex, Pam, who has remarried and achieved a new social status but not the satisfaction she expected it to bring. Strout has told us that marriages play a central role in her fiction; in an interview in the back of the Random House edition of Kitteredge, she says, “A marriage is always a source of great drama for a fiction writer. It is in our most intimate relationships that we are truly revealed. . .” In The Burgess Boys, as in Kitteredge, the characters’ marriages prove revealing not only to us as readers, but also to themselves as characters. Usually a little too late, they learn who they are—who they can and should be—from how they’ve acted as a husband or wife.

Stylistically and thematically, this novel shares much in common with Olive Kitteredge, which also focuses on the relationships between people in a small Maine town. Though it’s a collection of separate short stories, in a strange way Kitteredge is a tighter book with a more in-depth study of characters. (It’s a must-read if you’ve somehow missed it along the way.) To be honest, sometimes the stereotypes of the Burgess siblings grated on my nerves. Does Jim really need to call Bob a “slob-dog” or a “cretinized bozo” in every conversation in order for us to get that they have relationship issues? But such stereotypes are what this story is made of. If we get stuck playing a role for much of our lives—the successful brother, the favorite son, the guilty child, the failing parent, the Muslim immigrant—how do we get out of that role and become a fully developed person?

The novel leaves that question open-ended, as Bob thinks in the final pages about the future ahead:

He understood they would probably never again discuss the death of their father. The facts didn’t matter. Their stories mattered, and each of their stories belonged to them alone.

In the end, like Olive Kitteredge, this novel is a collection of different characters’ different stories—stories which ultimately belong to each one alone.

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