Reinventing the boys

The Burgess Boys (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Stroud

I must admit that I wasn’t a fan of Olive Kitteridege, Elizabeth Stroud’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Maybe it was just the teacher in me who found the retired teacher Olive so unlikeable; maybe it was the fact that the interlocking tales just didn’t interlock completely enough for me. (I’m nothing if not a fan of a good plot.) So I was a bit worried about Stroud’s The Burgess Boys, especially after I read one review that characterized the novel as rambling. But The Burgess Boys is rich and engaging (and, yes, maybe rambling) and oh-so-satisfying.

Jim and Bob Burgess, along with sister Susan, found their emotional lives constrained by a tragic accident: when he was only four, Bob ran over their father with the car, fatally injuring him. For the

rest of their lives, Bob lived in his brother’s shadow, never quite measuring up to his own (or anyone else’s) standards. Although he’s an attorney, Bob works in Legal Aid. Burdened by worthlessness, Bob describes himself as a “big slob-dog” and Jim as “someone born with grace, someone who walked two inches above the surface of the earth.”  Susan’s life also sags under the weight of small town gossip and a messy divorce. Only Jim Burgess, wealthy, successful New York attorney, escapes. Or does he?

The plot centers on the trials of Susan’s son Zachary, an odd, friendless boy “quiet, and hesitant in all his actions” whose own mother thought “the package of Zachness added up to not quite right.” The small Maine town of Shirley Falls has seen an influx of Somali refugees. They are Muslim, and this otherness isolates them. Zachary, in a thoughtless random act of delinquency, throws a thawing pig’s head through the door of a Muslim mosque–and the brothers Burgess hurry to his side. Or rather Bob does; Jim is vacationing at an island resort. And Bob, in true Bob-fashion, mucks up his rescue by almost hitting a Somali woman with his car. Hurrying home, Jim tries to spin Zachary’s act, rubbing shoulders with local officials and speaking at a unity rally.  The feds file a civil rights violation against Zachary. Life begins to break up.

The secondary characters in the novel propel the plot, but only just interest the reader. Bob’s ex-wife Pam begins to see her trade-up as (possibly) a raw deal; the Unitarian minister flits in and out of the plot as a mediator between the Somali and white community. Helen, Jim’s trophy wife, can’t take the heat and falls back on family money. But perhaps most interesting is Abdikarim Ahmed, the Somali cafe owner, who first testifies against Zachary and then begins to see beyond Zachary’s crime into his heart.

 Jim has a great fall; Bob picks up the pieces. Zachary re-invents himself; Susan carries on. And Stroud takes this Humpty Dumpty family and puts them back together again–thankfully not quite the same as before, but new, improved, and self-aware.

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