The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
2013/ 320 pages
Rating 8.5 / contemp fiction
Every once in awhile a book comes along which just amazes me – how do authors do this – grab some thread of an idea and tease it into a plot developing multi-layered characters and themes along the way and then interweaving them all into a lush fabric of something close to life?
This is a book about contemporary families and small towns, guilt and fear and love and truth and sibling rivalry along with racism, aging, and even a fairly strong undercurrent of death – how one non-sensical action or event can lead to a whole string of tragedies.
What happens is that an awkward and immature boy from a close extended family with emotional difficulties, tosses the head of a pig into a mosque which serves a group of new Somali immigrants in a small town in Maine. The Burgess boys are attorneys and the boy is the son of their divorced sister. This is deemed a “hate crime” and Zack goes to jail.
Stroud gets behind the exteriors of her characters in a multitude of ways. This is generally a third person novel, but many characters, Susan, Bobby, Helen, Abdikaram, Pam and others are presented close up and fairly intimate – we get a pretty good look inside their heads as they agonize over their lives and fear for Zack, the boy in trouble.
Somali and Bantu migration to Maine
“In 2006, a severed frozen pig’s head was thrown into a Lewiston mosque while the faithful were praying. This was considered very offensive by the town’s Muslim community, as swine is proscribed in Islam. The culprit admitted to the act and claimed it to be a joke. He later committed suicide.”
(population 36,000+ and they’re doing better these days)