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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout I love it when I finish a novel and know I can say to customers that this book is great, that it is one I know they will love. That is how I feel about The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, published just last week.

We will remember Elizabeth Strout for Olive Kitteridge, a book we were all reading the summer of 2009, and I know we will all be reading The Burgess Boys the summer of 2013.

We first meet the Burgess boys as they are being discussed by an unnamed woman and her mother. They once lived in Shirley Falls where the Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and their sister, Susan, grew up. Our unnamed narrator tells her mother she’s going write the story of the Burgess boys, and her mother’s response is that “it’s a good one. “ Both acknowledging that no one knows anyone else’s story, really.

We become intimately involved in the lives of the Burgess Boys and their family. Their hometown once thriving is now desolate, and now that their mother is dead the Burgess boys rarely visit. Only their sister Susan lives there still, with her son, a loser as far as Jim is concerned, scorned by Jim’s wife Helen, but family still. Helen never did care for Jim’s family, from the back woods of Maine. Helen came from money – money she still controls.

The novel begins Helen, packing for a vacation with her husband. At the same time Jim gets the call from his sister – her son is in trouble. Jim is a high-powered Manhattan lawyer, famous for achieving an acquittal for his client in an O J Simpson-like trial. Jim is older than his twin siblings by about six years, the adored big brother. But Jim is really not such a nice guy. I’d call him a bully. His younger siblings struggle with their self-worth while still looking to Jim to be the big brother who will fix things in their lives. It is Jim who will get young Zach out of this trouble with the police, surely he will. Well it is not quite so simple. There are politics involved, the “crime” is seen to be racially motivated, they are very sensitive in this small Maine community that has seen a large immigration of refuges from Somalia. The national papers are picking up the story.

We fear for the welfare of Zach, and for his mother who is, of course, beside herself with worry. Bob, more capable and level headed than his brother recognizes, is the one who comforts and re-assures and tries to keep it all from escalating any farther. Jim can’t quite believe that he can’t contain this – that his influence may not be what it once was when he was in the news every day, the celebrity defense lawyer.

We get to know what makes these people tick, the demons that keep them awake at night or drinking too much on occasion. They each have their own memories of their childhood together. Their own stories, belonging “to each one of them alone”. Of course we all do. Our stories may not involve a family tragedy that each child has their own truth about – a truth not revealed until this very serious situation with Zach demands their focused attention, and forces them to be together.

This is family life with all its warts and flaws exposed – and it’s ability to, sometimes, when it really matters, show compassion and express love and maybe even heal the hurts of childhood that have festered for most of a lifetime.

The Burgess Boys – you’ll love it.

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