May 2013: The Burgess Boys
The Boys Are Back in Town
Two brothers flee their tragic past and small Maine hometown for divergent lives in New York City. But a new family crisis—a nephew in serious trouble—calls them back to their home. What they learn about each other—and their family—in the course of aiding their nephew changes their relationship forever. Real Simple Assistant Editor Stephanie Sisco led the club’s May 2013 discussion of The Burgess Boys, the latest work from Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge).
The Burgess Boys: Book One
In the prologue, we are introduced to the narrator and her mother and discover that the Burgess family saga is the knot that keeps the two of them together. Jim Burgess was (and still is) the golden child in Shirley Falls, Maine. Bobby Burgess, on the other hand, seemed good and gentle though they say he killed his father (There is definitely more to that story.). The narrator agrees and decides to write about their tale. And so we get The Burgess Boys.
Throughout Book One, the web of relationships begins to unfold, allowing us to see which of those are surface and which are life-stabilizing. We are first introduced to Helen and Jim Burgess—a prominent New York City couple preparing for vacation. Soon, a second Burgess “boy” enters the picture: Bob is Jim’s younger brother who, right off the bat seems somewhat unstable. He is shaken after overhearing his neighbors fight and, ultimately, the husband arrested. Describing it to Helen he says, “Like that, it happened. I mean, it was just an ordinary day.” Knowing, as we do from the prologue, that Bob was rumored to have killed his father, this comment made me pause and wonder if he is affected by these relative strangers’ situation because of his own past experiences. Did you also wonder why the marital dispute shook Bob so much? Bob obviously relies on the strength and stability of his older brother. Helen, on the other hand, seems to have many surface-type relationships and doesn’t offer up much of herself with others.
While discussing this event, the Burgess sister, Susan, calls Jim to tell him that her son, Zach, is about to be arrested for a hate crime. Jim is ready to call off his trip in order to drive to Maine and get a handle on the situation, yet Bob insists he can handle it on his own. We soon learn, however, that Bob is unreliable when he oversleeps and nearly forgets to pick up the car keys (he is afraid to fly) from his brother before the couple takes off. And so, Bob drives to help his twin sister and nephew contain the situation.
Enter the town of Shirley Falls: a sleepy New England town rapidly increasing in Somali refugee population. Zach’s hate crime involved throwing a thawing pig’s head into these refugees’ mosque during Ramadan. One thing that struck me was how many judgmental or racial statements characters made throughout just this first section—not just involving the Somalis, but other comments too that introduced the seeming indifference to hardships and histories of other cultures.
We don’t know much about Zach or what made him perform his act of hate. We do know that he has an absentee father, works at Wal-Mart, doesn’t seem to have any friends, and does not have much of a relationship with his mother (Helen thinks of her nephew as “a motherless-seeming child”). Susan gets defensive when Bob asks her about Zach, but she can hardly answer a question about her son or what would possess him to defile the mosque.
Book One leaves the Burgess boys in the following situations:
• Jim is furious at his brother for ending up on the cover of the newspaper in a picture with him and Zach smiling while leaving the courthouse.
• Zach is out of jail and back to work. Nothing much has come to light about his situation.
• Bob nearly backs into a Somali woman while leaving a convenience store and is so shaken up by the incident, he gives up on helping his family in Shirley Falls and plans to fly back to New York City.
Isn’t it interesting how our past can influence our present? Though some are able to appreciate the past as just that—something that is done and gone—and are able to move beyond it, others are unable to let go. There’s a difference between letting the past shape you and letting it keep you from moving forward.
As we move on to Book Two this week, I am interested in learning more about Helen—I have a feeling that there is more to her than meets the eye. I haven’t been able to figure her out just yet. Is there a particular character that grabs you so far?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the comments section below.
Let’s read through Book Two for next week. Until then, happy reading!
The Burgess Boys: Book Two
Hi again, Bookies!
Book Two definitely gives us more insight into the characters, yet like many of you who have commented, I can’t say I like many of them any better. We learn more about Pam, in particular, throughout this section and through her musings we get more of a peek into the past of the Burgess siblings. Bob was considered his mother’s favorite; while she loved Jim, she wasn’t particularly affectionate toward him. Susan, however, withstood the brunt of her mother’s jokes and ill-mannered behavior. Pam wonders if Barbara Burgess (the mother) chose to love Bob the best rather than to feel rage toward him after the accident.
We are also given a glimpse into the experiences of some of the Somalis in Shirley Falls. Abdikarim, in particular, notes that constant incomprehension between Somalis and New Englanders leaves a feeling of uncertainty in the air at all times. Many Somalis don’t know English, so relying on either translators or gestures to communicate leads to more incomprehension, struggle, and stress. However, at the Together for Tolerance rally, there was a completely different vibe toward the Somali people. People would smile at them and look them in the eyes rather than dart in the other direction or jeer at them, as the Somalis had grown accustomed to. Do you think this warming up to the “outsiders” in the Shirley Falls community will continue? As Jim pointed out, the town needs to accept any outsider because they are the ones keeping businesses alive. The children who grew up there more than likely are in no hurry to return after college.
We are given a bit more information about Zach, but not much. We do learn that he has been in contact with his father through e-mail and, when Zach mentioned the Somalis moving to Shirley Falls, his father noted that they were “kind of crazy.” Do you think Zach’s hate crime was his way of trying to please (or simply affect) his dad?
Throughout Book Two, my distaste for Jim intensified. Even Helen starts to see her husband as unappealing. For some reason, though, Bob continues to brush off so much of Jim’s horrible behavior toward him. Bob’s therapist had once pointed out that he allows this because he feels he needs “to be punished for his childhood act of innocence.”
The Wally Packer song lyric “Take this burden from me, the burden of my love” weaves throughout this entire narrative and certainly reminds me what a burden these characters’ love for one another is: Barbara’s love for her son, Bob’s love for his ill-mannered older brother, Zach’s love for his inattentive father.
I would love to hear your thoughts, so please do share them in the comments section below.
For next week, we will read through Book Three. Until then, happy reading!
The Burgess Boys: Book Three (SPOILER ALERT!)
Hello again, Bookies!
Well, Book Three was the shortest so far, but certainly provided some shocking content for us. Right off the bat, we learn how much Susan resents Zach—both for not being the girl she had originally wanted (she miscarried a daughter before Zach’s birth) and for causing her husband to leave their family. How sad is it that she thinks “if Zach had turned out differently, his father might have stayed”? Verbalized or not, that is a ton of pressure to put on a child.
Bob notes that two thirds of their family had not escaped a poor fate, as much as they had tried; only Jim was able to do so. After months of radio silence regarding Zach’s fate in the courts, it’s sealed when a civil rights action is filed against him for violating the right to freedom of religion.
In Book Three, we start to see a shift in actions and mind-sets of many characters. During the trial, Abdikarim has a change of heart about Zach, deciding that—unlike his portrayal in the press—he is not a hate-filled man but simply a frightened child. Helen seems to be growing unhappier by the minute, yet still appears selfish to me. She loses the diamond from her engagement ring and, for her, I think this signifies the loss of something sacred in her marriage. (Jim, on the other hand, reacts as if it were simply another material possession that can be replaced.) Pam continues to remain fickle about everything in her life. One minute she is pining for the days when she was with Bob and the Burgess family, yet a little later the feeling passes “the way of a cramping stomach muscle.” How lovely.
We get a lot of information about Jim in this section and see a definite change in how the “superstar from Shirley Falls” is viewed. Dorothy sees him out on a cozy-looking lunch with an employee; this revelation left me with a definite niggling about infidelity, though that hasn’t been confirmed. Margaret the minister tells Bob that Jim did not make a good impression when he left immediately after speaking at the peace rally, not staying to listen to the governor or anyone else. And, in the biggest bombshell of the entire section, Jim reveals to Bob—MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!—that he was the one who’d actually run over their father. He’d put Bob up front before his mother saw what had happened and never had the courage to tell the truth. How do you think this is going to affect Jim’s fate? How about Bob? Bob has lived his whole life believing he killed his father; readjusting to the truth will be a huge undertaking and I hope it will allow him to thrive.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. And for next week, let’s read through to the end.
The Burgess Boys: Book Four (SPOILER ALERT!)
Hello again, Bookies!
This last section finally drew me in as all the story lines came to a head. Nearly all of the characters had drastic changes in their lives by Book Four. (NOTE: If you haven’t yet finished the book, you might want to hold up reading this just now—lots of plot points are revealed.)
Bob’s understanding of his existence shifted once there was a seed of doubt planted about whether he was the one who had killed their father. No one truly remembers what happened that day (even Susan thought she might have done it), but the ability to question it seems to give Bob freedom and he is finally able to become his best self.
Zach starts to blossom while living with his father in Sweden. Shortly after the investigation against him is dropped (thanks to the influence of Abdikarim), Zach comes back to his mother in Shirley Falls and their relationship starts fresh and is much healthier.
Without Zach in her life, Susan felt extremely lost. It was a bit of a blessing in disguise, though, as she finally comes into her own and starts socializing with people other than her son or her tenant. Susan also begins to recognize how her own mother’s treatment of her growing up influenced her treatment of others in her adult life. This awareness allows her to move toward a positive change.
For a long time, Jim refuses to acknowledge that he did anything wrong in allowing everyone to blame his brother for their father’s death and being unfaithful and deceitful toward Helen. In Book Four, Jim’s career is upended after an office affair (with Bob’s old downstairs neighbor, of all people!) leads to the threat of a lawsuit. He hides all of this from Helen, yet his secrecy (and, I think, shame) takes its toll on him.
Before Helen finds out about Jim’s infidelity, she already senses something is wrong in their relationship and tries to rationalize: “People who almost die together stay together.” But, ultimately, she decides to kick Jim out of the house. Helen kind of explodes when Bob comes over to talk with her and says awful things about Susan and the Burgess family, reminding me that she thinks higher of herself than almost anyone else. I tried to be sympathetic toward Helen, but all the things she spits out in anger seem to reveal her true self. How did Helen’s actions and words in Book Four influence you?
Though Helen is not the most delightful person, neither is Jim. And after his life has pretty much completely fallen apart (he becomes the “slob-dog” he always insisted Bob was), Bob and Susan urge him to fight for Helen and try to repair their relationship.
Normally, I don’t like when there are unresolved story lines in novels, but for Helen and Jim, I am glad their story ended where it did. It leaves me with hope that the two of them can become better people, whether together or not. It finally became a story about Bob, not “Jim’s brother Bob.” Do you wish you had found out what happened after Jim got off the bus in NYC?
One of my favorite lines from Book Four was Bob telling Jim, “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.” Bob reminds him (and us, as readers) that if times are good or times are bad, family remains and you have to work to repair any strains because family is a bond that is tough to break.
Thanks for reading along with me, Bookies! As always, please leave any comments in the section below. And here’s some news: Elizabeth Strout will be taking questions from the No-Obligation Book Club. So anything you would like to ask her, please do so in the comments section as well by Friday, May 31.
Let me kick it off with my question: Elizabeth, the narrator introduced to us in the prologue was so intrigued by the Burgess boys’ saga that she decided to write about it. Did you have a similar experience in your life that sparked the idea for this novel?
P.S.: Don’t forget to vote for the June book!
Elizabeth Strout Answers Questions About The Burgess Boys (SPOILER ALERT!)
The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel and our May read, is gorgeously written and deeply involving, and like any family epic (or family, for that matter), it has its secrets, which are slowly revealed over its course. So I cannot urge you enough to stop reading here if you have not yet finished the book, because the author very particularly discusses plot points that should not be revealed outside of her pages. So...SPOILER ALERT!! That said, enjoy!
From reader dconnolly: I read somewhere that Elizabeth Strout said that she loves hearing strangers talking on cell phones. My first question: Are there examples of this in Burgess Boys—specific lines or thoughts that she picked up from hearing a partial conversation from a complete stranger? My second question: Is there a secondary character that she became particularly attached to? And, finally, what was her overall inspiration for beginning this novel?
Good question about the cell phone! In an earlier draft of the book, I did, in fact, use a few things I had overheard, but as I reworked the book I saw they did not really fit, were not needed, and so they did not make the cut.
Was there a secondary character I became attached to? Pam. Perhaps she is not secondary, but for a long while I was not sure about her, even whether or not she belonged in the book. But I saw that she was a deep part of Bob; I could hardly write about him without having her there too, and she was a real part of the Burgess family, in a way. I began to understand that she was one of the many people who have to find a new way of staying engaged as families are rearranged, but mostly I was interested in her relationship to Bob, and she touched me the more I worked with her. Mrs. Drinkwater was also someone I gave a great deal of thought to—her own private story of how she made a cultural and class change herself; what she gained by that, what she lost.
My overall inspiration for the book? The brothers. Their love for each other.
From reader karingam: What were the main influences for you when creating this novel? There are so many in-depth messages and themes jumping out. Which ones were you the most passionate about?
There is a lot of stuff in here, it’s true. What was my main influence in writing this, and what was I most passionate about? I think I was mostly compelled by a sense that life is only partly written by ourselves, and the mystery of where the rest of it comes from is huge: the randomness of events that cast their shadows for decades, the randomness of our own natures, the time we are born into (civil war for the Somalis, affluence down the coast for Jim Burgess). And memory, of course, which is its own fiction, truer than fact. But I suppose what I was most passionate about was how these themes are all connected. Marriage is not separate from class (Mrs. Drinkwater, Helen Farber Burgess…..), or the memories we’re running from, or what our sense of home might be. How we react to the marriage won’t be separate from those things either. And traditionally America has always held out that hope that we can reinvent ourselves. All of this—all these aspects touching—interested me.
From reader himmel: Of course the big question at the end of the book is what did Jim do when he reached New York. I kind of like that the story ends there...leaving all kinds of possibilities for change! But I would LOVE to know how Elizabeth Strout has it end in her mind?
Oh, what happens to Helen and Jim—oh, yes, that’s the question! I wondered about this a great deal as it became clear to me that their marriage would get ripped. And I went back and forth and kept thinking: well, I don’t have to decide that now. And then I understood that I didn’t have to decide at all, that readers could decide because most of the material of who these people are had been given to them. But there is always a question, always a mystery. At times I thought: She should not let him come back. Go out there and grow, Helen. Then I would think, She has to let him back. They love each other (I think they do) and while it’s easy to see Jim as the one who erred, she, remember, has not always been supportive of his background, his family, has thought herself better than they. So both Helen and Jim have some work to do, and I would be more worried about her ability to do it than his. But I think he goes back and begs, and she takes him back. That’s what I think now. They’ll be marked. But life marks us.
From discussion leader Stephanie Sisco: The narrator introduced to us in the prologue was so intrigued by the Burgess boys’ saga that she decided to write about it. Did you have a similar experience in your life that sparked the idea for this novel?
I have discussions like this all the time, with my mother, with friends; that fun sense of a dreamy kind of “Did I ever tell you about…..?” Or, “Hey, remember that guy who used to….?” My mother, my daughter—we love this form of recreation, and it’s a form of storytelling, which moves into Maura Fritz’s question of why I started the book this way. [Ed. note: Here are those questions: Why did you decide to open the book that way? Who do you envision being the author? One point that came out in discussion was the true nature of Jim's character: Do you see him as a born bully? Did you find yourself feeling more or less sympathetic toward Jim and the rest of your characters as you wrote them?] I just wanted to. I wanted it to have that sense of, Here is a story. The author is the author (me), but the narrator is the woman in the prologue (not me.) Also, lots of information gets in there that clears the way to go ahead and start the story; we know things about them before the curtain goes up, and I liked that idea.
Jim. I loved Jim. I understand many people don’t. But I do not think he was born a bully. Many bullies are very frightened people, and I thought Jim was one of the most frightened people in the book, and he had been frightened ever since that day he thought he killed his father. And then he never told, and it just ate at him, put him in a state of anxiety that he could never break out from. Someone wrote me that they thought Jim was evil, and that reminded me that people bring their own life experiences to a book, which is of course how it should be. To me Jim was not evil, very few people are actually evil, I think, though some are; but for me, Jim was not one of them. Just very human. Caught in a trap. Scared. I loved him.