A thought crept into my mind as I read Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel, “The Burgess Boys” (2013) — “Do they ever award a Pulitzer Prize to someone twice?” This is Strout’s first novel since winning the esteemed award for her fictional “Olive Kitteredge” in 2009 for its “emotional wallop and polished prose,” and it is outstanding. “The Burgess Boys” offers the same qualities and even more — an unbiased look at one of the sensitive issues of our time: the assimilation of a beleaguered group of African refugees resettled into a small American town.
That contemporary issue is but a backdrop though for a lively story involving an old Maine family that has splintered but is slowly yet dramatically brought together when a young family member does a hideous thing to the community of Somalis in their hometown of Shirley Falls. The Burgess family has a history. According to the family legend, when the Burgess boys were young and waiting unattended in the family car, one of them accidently released the brake, killing their father. To the townspeople of Shirley Falls, Bob became “the boy who killed his father.” Teachers pitied him, schoolmates teased him, his mother coddled him and his older brother Jim, who had already been anointed the clever, competent one, took on the role of belittling and bullying the big-hearted but damaged Bob.
When the story opens we meet the Burgess siblings, Jim, Bob and Bob’s twin, Susan, in their fifties. Jim has become a hotshot New York lawyer, widely known as the defense attorney who got off a popular soul-singer. Also living in New York but alone in a dingy apartment is Bob, a lawyer who could not handle the stress of the courtroom so works in a legal aid office. The crisis is set in motion when Jim receives a frantic call from Susan who has remained in their small Maine town: Zach, the son she has raised alone since her divorce, has inexplicably desecrated a Muslim mosque. Susan needs her brothers to come immediately and help contain the situation.
The situation, however, is not easily contained, so for many months Jim and Bob are called upon to respond to complications caused by the vagaries of national agendas and local politics. The three siblings and their loved ones operate in crisis mode, and that shaky foundation exposes surprising behaviors.
The brilliance of Strout’s writing is her ability to allow us to feel what her characters are feeling as she moves the point of view from one to another. It is hard to put down a book where you care so much about the people. One Amazon reviewer felt so connected to this family she asked, “Does anyone know Bob Burgess’ phone number?” I know just what she meant.