I have to admit that my reactions to this book must include some personal bias since it is mostly set and largely about the State of Maine – the place where I grew up. As such this novel is painfully close and familiar to me: from the cans of Moxie stacked in the refrigerator to the yellowing leaves of maple trees in the Fall to the remote bus station in Maine’s largest city to the restaurants all closed by 9PM because most residents have dinner at 5:30PM. It’s a detailed portrait of life in this largely rural, economically-depressed, sparsely populated, beautiful rocky coast-lined place known as The Vacation State – a place that I love in many ways but which I couldn’t wait to move away from when I became an adult. As is noted in the novel, it has a dwindling population because many young people move out of state when they come of age. With many of the new generation leaving and non-white immigrants moving in there will inevitably be clashes (since the majority of the population in Maine is Caucasian.)
This is the issue at the centre of Elizabeth Strout’s novel focusing on a fictional town called Shirley Falls. A teenage boy named Zach rolls the head of a pig into the town’s mosque attended by the steadily growing Somali population. This sparks off a political debate about racial and religious intolerance in the state. Zach’s uncles Jim and Bob Burgess who both work in the law profession (although Jim is much more successful) and live in New York City return to Maine to help defend Zach’s case. In the process they reignite family ties with Zach and his mother, their estranged sister Susan who has lived all her life in Shirley Falls. The Burgess siblings lost their father when they were all quite young due to an accident that has caused strained relations between them ever since. As the truth about the past gradually emerges the insecurities of all three of the adults comes to the forefront, particularly the antagonistic relationship between bullying arrogant successful Jim and large-hearted Bob described as “big, slob-dog, incontinent self, the opposite of Jim.” They have to renegotiate the meaning of family as their need for each other becomes evident.
The novel begins with an interesting prologue about a mother and daughter gossiping about this family and the incident with Zach. It gives you information about the fates of some of the characters we follow throughout the novel. Thus I found it fascinating to go back to the beginning and read it again after finishing the novel since I was now very acquainted with the characters. The novel is the daughter’s account of the siblings (as well as Jim and Bob’s wives). However, as a counter-point to the purely white perspective, sections of the novel switch to focus on Abdikarim, one of the Somali population who has taken up residence in Maine. He’s also a character who comes to play a pivotal role in the plot near the novel’s end.
Strout creates subtly written scenes which hint at much deeper feelings than what are on show. Here is an example of the artful (almost Jamesian) composition of Strout’s scenes. In one chapter while on vacation Jim’s wife Helen plans to seduce him after reading a magazine article about maintaining intimacy in a marriage. She finds him enraged and ugly after speaking with his brother on the phone. Her focus turns to a bowl of lemons and “a queer calmness descended on her” while her husband rages. As she looks at the lemons the idea of them can’t seep into her consciousness. At a point of emotional crisis there is a separation between her essential being and the world around her. It’s as if in looking at a still life painting which clearly represents a “thing” you have no understanding of what that thing is. It’s the gap between experience and emotional involvement with that experience. It’s a profound way to represent the interstices between knowing and being.
One scene in particular is so powerful it made me physically cry. The sister Susan reflects on her early marriage and first pregnancy which resulted in a miscarriage. The grief accompanying this loss is a shock for her to bear and transforms her: “It was as though she had been escorted through a door into some large and private club that she had not even known existed. Women who miscarried. Society did not care much for them. It really didn’t. And the women in the club mostly passed each other silently. People outside the club said, ‘You’ll have another one.’” This is a searing indictment of the way society deals with women who have lost children to miscarriage – something that sadly happens to so many women in the early stages of their first pregnancy. It reminds me of another powerful and original novel – “Black Bread White Beer” by Niven Govinden (which I reviewed a few months ago) about a couple dealing with a miscarriage.
“The Burgess Boys” provides more in-depth, but equally complex social critiques about the issue of strained race relations in the US in the past decade. The rise of fear and mistrust following 9/11 has led to sublimated and sometimes overt expressions of xenophobia. Strout states “that’s what we ignorant, weenie Americans, ever since the towers went down, really want to do. Have permission to hate them.” In some scenes characters find reasons to cite why the cultural differences between the native Maine population and the Somali immigrants is untenable. Although a huge amount of people show up for a rally to support tolerance (as opposed to the handful of white-supremacists who show up to demonstrate against them) there are hushed private conversations between the white population who make generalizations and speak negatively about the groups of Somali. Many of the events concerning the Somali depicted in this novel are inspired by real incidents. Strout beautifully illustrates various points of view to raise questions and make you think more about this complex, difficult issue.
More than anything, this novel was a nostalgia trip for me. Describing the powerful connection and the mixed emotions you have for the place where you grew up is difficult. However, Strout does this incredibly well when Bob arrives back in Maine to advise his sister and nephew: “How could he describe what he felt? The unfurling of an ache so poignant it was almost erotic, this longing, the inner silent gasp as though in the face of something unutterably beautiful, the desire to put his head down on the big loose lap of this town, Shirley Falls.” There is a strong sense of familiarity and reverting back to a childhood self, but that self is now imbued with an adult sensibility that is both hesitant and yearning. It’s a sensation I know very well, especially for this specific location, and it’s what I feel whenever I return to Maine for a visit. It makes me wonder how authentic my accent now sounds when I say “You can’t get they-ah from he-yah.”
Strout uses a lush poetic language at the beginning of many chapters to describe the physical environment of her scenes. Whether you are familiar with the Maine landscape or not this book will make you feel like you’ve been there. Although I felt a deep, personal connection to this book I believe that “The Burgess Boys” will resonate with many people because of the universal issues it raises about family and community.