The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, is a novel for modern times. Strout doesn’t sugar coat reality; she revels in it, showing the reader manipulation, fear, bigotry, and deception. But Strout’s gift is her ability to make that which seems on the surface to be clear—clearly right or clearly wrong—as a much more complicated matter, affected by a myriad of influences, and interpreted through the eyes of others in different ways.
The boys for whom the book is titled are Jim and Bob Burgess, who together with their sister Susan, grew up in a small town in Maine. Their father was killed accidentally when the children were young and this event weighs heavily on Bob and Jim into their adulthood. The incident upon which the novel’s action is centered involves Zach, Susan’s son. Zach is a loner. The reader gathers that he is searching for approval, is depressed, and somewhat aimless. What Zach does feeds bigotry against Somalis in his community but simultaneously lays a foundation for understanding.
Strout allows the reader to anguish along with the characters in the book, hearing “their side” of the conflict and gaining understanding of their actions. Zach offends and frightens the Somali community, yet the reader is allowed to see him as a sympathetic character who claimed to not fully understand the impact of what he had done. Susan is an often absentee mom who is disconnected from Zach, yet the reader sees her as the struggling and loving parent she is, raised by an overly critical mother. A prominent Somali leader in the community is angry and fearful following Zach’s offense, yet readers know that he yearns for reconciliation and understanding, not revenge.
The Burgess Boys invites readers to adjust their perceptions, without leading them to choose one perspective over another, just as the characters do in the novel. And greater understanding is truly a noble objective in these modern times.
The Burgess Boys was published in 2013 by Random House.