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The Burgess Boys: A Novel

The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout The Burgess Boys are both lawyers but in very different fields of law. Jim, the older brother, by four years, is famous, extremely arrogant and rude. Bob is an unknown, quiet and unassuming divorced man. Jim represents the rich and famous and Bob represents those in need. They are opposite sides of the coin, politically, financially and socially. Susan is Jim’s twin sister and her tongue is as sharp as Jim’s. She is divorced, still living in small town Maine, while the boys have moved on and are living in Manhattan. Helen, Jim’s wife is suffering from “empty nest” syndrome. She is independently wealthy and rather shallow.
This is a story that examines family dynamics. Even a gentle elderly lady that lives with Susan is haunted by a past in which she questions her own parenting skills and loyalties, as will each of the other characters, in turn. A Somali family will question American values and want to return to Nairobi, even though it, as well as Mogadishu does not welcome them, even though they have come to America to find a better, more just way of life.
Zachary is Susan’s only child. He is a strange and lonely, introverted teen, who has not seen his father, who lives in Sweden, in several years. He suddenly finds himself in deep trouble in his quiet, home town of Shirley Falls, Maine. He has committed a terrible act of injustice against the Somalis of the town. Walking by their mosque, with a defrosting, bloody pig’s head, he drops it and it rolls inside, contaminating the premises and frightening the worshipers. One child even faints from the shock. The Somalis believe they are under attack. Coming from their background, their fears are warranted.
Susan tells her famous lawyer brother, Jim, what has happened. So far, the person who committed this shameful act is unknown. He tells her that Zack must turn himself into the authorities. The ensuing investigation involves Bob and Jim and takes on a life of its own, with the Attorney General and other attorneys grandstanding for their own political and career advancement, with the Somali community up in arms and filled with fear, with the prejudices of the town abruptly coming to the surface, with pride taking over in the making of decisions instead of common sense. In the effort to make an example of Zack, the fact that he is a child, perhaps with no malicious intent, is totally disregarded and forgotten. Vengeance becomes the motive of the civil trial rather than serving the cause of justice.
This is a story about truly unhappy, unfulfilled people, shaped by tragedy. Every character in this novel is needy, has something in their past that haunts them. Hidden fears and family secrets are revealed, in both cultures, the Somali and the American; preconceptions are exposed and bias is examined, although not thoroughly enough. Did Zack commit a hate crime or a stupid childish prank? Was it even on purpose? Was it his intent to hurt these people by contaminating their mosque with the blood of a pig, an animal forbidden to them? Did these people do anything to invite such behavior, and if they did, would that justify such a hateful act? Was Zack a bad seed? The author portrays those that are successful as selfish and greedy, unfeeling, unable to be pleased, snobbish, haughty and affected, without proper respect for the law. She portrays those that are in need as more worthy, kinder, more forgiving and accepting, with better values. They have unfulfilled dreams and hopes which society largely prevents them from realizing. They are law abiding and peace-loving.
This is the story of a family and a community trying not to come apart, trying to contain the drama, sometimes unsuccessfully, sometimes willfully overreacting. Was the event the catalyst to the subsequent traumas? Would they have happened without the commission of the misdemeanor? The characters question their own past, their decisions and their motives. The reader will wonder if the way we treat someone is what shapes them or if the person is shaped in the womb? The Burgess children were certainly shaped by their upbringing. Do we make “haters” of people, or are they simply people filled with angst, people with the capacity to hate, to express anger? Is an act of injustice simply that, or are their nuances? Does our justice system guarantee a proper defense to someone even if they are guilty or is that just a nice concept in theory?
I think the author missed the opportunity to really develop a dialog about the Somali community, dispel stereotypes and enlighten the reader, but instead chose to make a political point, going so far as to make negative comments about a book written by a woman from Somalia in which she criticizes the lifestyle she endured. Although it was not mentioned by name, the book implied seemed to me to be “Infidel”, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which has been described as a brave effort, but the feeling I got from the author was that she feels it was meant to unfairly foment prejudice against the Somalis and present a one-sided view. I wondered if the author was actually using her own book to advance her personal, one-sided political view, without even considering both sides fairly or equally.
Liberals are presented as kind, caring, and righteous, while those on the right are presented as angry, mean, bigoted troublemakers, with destructive intentions. This book’s message will surely please the Progressives and perhaps upset the Conservatives. In the end, the person who becomes Zack’s advocate will surprise the reader, but it will fit with the more liberal viewpoint and approach of the author.