The Burgess Boys Book Review

Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout; Random House; March 2013; 320 pp. $26.00

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout has written another exceptional novel, The Burgess Boys, filled with deeply human characters and an absorbing storyline. Like her previous novels, Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, and Abide with Me, The Burgess Boys is set primarily in a small town in Maine.

The Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and Bob's twin sister Susan, grew up without their father, who was killed in a freak accident when Bob and Susan were four years old. Bob has gracefully endured his big brother's persistent verbal abuse since they were young, mainly because Bob knows he was the cause of their father's death. He has lived his life in the shadow of Jim, who is a successful New York corporate lawyer, while Bob is a big-hearted Legal Aid attorney, also in New York. Susan is the only sibling who remains in their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, and when her teenage son, Zach, gets in trouble, she calls on her brothers to help.  Zach, a socially withdrawn teenager, has performed a thoughtless prank, throwing a pig's head into the mosque of the community's Somali population. The action has the potential to be considered a hate crime, even though Zach doesn't seem to harbor ill feelings toward the Somali people; he isn't really sure why he did what he did. When Jim and Bob return to Shirley Falls to help their nephew, their homecoming stirs up some buried emotions within the family.

Strout not only gives readers a sense of the Burgess family tensions, but she also does an admiral job of characterizing the Somali immigrant experience and putting a human face to their struggles. A portion of The Burgess Boys is told from the point of view of Abdikarim Ahmed, one of the Somali refugees who witnessed Zach's transgression. The experience of living in a refugee camp and coming to a new and very foreign land is conveyed through the eyes of Abdikarim.

Combining an interesting plot with some great writing, Strout engages readers right from the start when she opens the book with a prologue, told in the first person (but identified only as a writer who grew up with the Burgess children in Shirley Falls.)  The prologue sets the scene for the rest of the book by providing the background of the Burgess family.  Jim Burgess is described as someone who was always trying to control his anger and Bob as having a big heart. The prologue ends with the foretelling statement "Nobody ever knows anyone."

The San Francisco Chronicle has applauded Strout's "magnificent gift for humanizing characters." Certainly, she is adept at forming very real characters that aren't always likeable. Both Burgess boys will exasperate readers; Jim is egotistical and makes some audacious moves while Bob seems unable or unwilling to challenge his brother's insults. Both boys handle their nephew's legal crisis in very different, but authentic ways.

The Burgess Boys is a well-told and interesting book. It is also a relevant read because of the social and political issues that are part of the storyline. Once again, Elizabeth Strout has authored a fine, insightful novel.

The Burgess Boys is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University Bookstores.