Elizabeth Strout’s characters proves strongest element in ‘The Burgess Boys’

Bobby Blanchard

Elizabeth Strout’s “The Burgess Boys” is only her fourth book, but her engaging plot thrives with a cast of well-rounded characters.

The majority of the novel takes place in Shirley Falls, a small town in Maine. Bob and Jim Burgess have spent many years of their life avoiding the town where they grew up in, haunted by the accident that killed their father. But when their nephew, Zach Burgess, throws a frozen pig head through the front door of a Mosque during Ramadan and deeply offends Shirley Falls’ growing Muslim community, the Burgess brothers are called back to their hometown to help their sister, Susan, deal with her son. The situation is already falling apart, but when Bob and Jim arrive, things worsen.

Zach’s provocative hate crime is the catalyst for the book’s entire plot. It’s easy for a plot to collapse when it’s relying on a single event to hold up the story, but Strout manages this feat with ease. Rather than treating the pig’s head as the story’s foundation, Strout masterfully uses Zach’s crime as a domino to set off a chain of events.

The reasons for Zach’s hate crime do not stem from hate. He is not anti-Muslim or a white supremacist. He did not even know what Ramadan was until his actions got picked up and covered by the national media. But Strout does not make any excuses for Zach — his actions have consequences. She does not, however, paint him as a cruel villain either. Instead, Zach is simply a confused adolescent.

“The Burgess Boys” deals with complex themes remarkably well. Religion, race, class lines and family ties are woven together expertly, and Strout treads these tricky, sensitive issues without any missteps. But it’s not Strout’s themes or her plot that make the book. Strout’s strongest elements in her storytelling are her characters, who are each remarkable in their depth and fullness. The characters have many parallels with each other, and ultimately it is their connections that make them work so well together.

Bob and Jim are stark opposites. Childless Bob has been left uncertain and unsure by his divorce and memories of his father’s accidental death. He is much more comfortable in Jim’s shadow. Jim is bold, abrasive, confident and unapologetic. But as the novel develops, their dynamic shifts, and Bob slowly begins to emerge as the caretaker of his older brother. Strout’s portrayal of their shifting dynamic and banter is one of her novel’s most important aspects. Bob and Jim are forever connected by the accident that killed their father — and the secret that lurks behind his death.

Then there is Susan, Jim’s younger sister and Bob’s twin. Susan, like Bob, has gone through a divorce. But while Bob’s divorce left him quiet, kind and passive, Susan’s divorce made her cold and cynical. At the start of the novel, Susan and Bob are pitted against each other with heated disdain while they try to keep Zach out of trouble. Susan prefers Jim, and is skeptical of her passive brother’s ability to help her son. But, just like Bob and Jim’s relationship develops, Susan and Bob’s dynamic is constantly changing.  

Despite Zach’s hate crime, Susan’s coldness, Bob’s passiveness and Jim’s arrogance, the Burgess family is likable. They are not limited by their good or bad traits, and readers will be invested in their fates, as well as the fate of their town torn apart by turmoil.