“That’s called family.” another dang book review from Jupe


I finished reading The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and returned it the library before the seven days allotted to this new book were over.

The title is a bit misleading. The book is really about the Burgess kids which includes two brothers, Jim and Bob, the younger of which is a twin to the third sibling, Susan.

In the course of the book we learn about their family of origin. When all three were small, their father left them in an idling car to go down the hill of their driveway (to check the mailbox?). With the three children in the car, the car rolled down and kills the father.

This events haunts the lives the three children in the car. The book tells the stories of their lives through their late fifties.

By the end of the book, Strout has painted a convincing picture of why America needs family and community and how this does and does not work.

She cleverly emphasizes this with a plot line about an influx of Somali refugees into a small Maine village called Shirley Falls, the fictional (as far as google can tell) city where much of her novel, Olive Kitteridge, takes place.

The refugees have fled terrible wars in their home country. We get glimpses of their lives and even get inside the head of Abdikarim Ahmed who is living through the pain of losing his wife to separation in America and not having a son. Abdikarim also rubs up against the Burgess family when he testifies at the court trial of one of them who is accused of committing a hate crime against this new Muslim community. The perpetrator is young Zach, son of Susan, who is himself estranged from his own father and is a typical gentle withdrawn American outsider who has acted in confusion causing his trial.

Not having children or not raising them well is a theme of this book. One of Bob’s wives, Pam, leaves him and it looks like it was ultimately because of his physical infertility.

I wasn’t drawn into this book as deeply as Olive Kitteridge, but I did end up enjoying it. I found passages that I wanted to keep to read and re-read and think about.

Here they are:

Haweeya is part of Abdikarim’s extended Somali family. Unlike him, she has chosen to return to Africa despite the danger. She sees that if she remains in the USA it will change her and her children in ways that are too troubling.

“Haweeya said, “In America, it is about the individual. Self-realization. Go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, open any magazine, and it is self, self, self. But in my culture it is about community and family… I want my children not to feel—what is the word?—entitled. People here raise their children to feel entitled. If the child feels something, he says what he feels, even if it’s rude to his elders. And the parents say, Oh, good, he is expressing himself. They say, I want my child to feel entitled.”

In the next excerpt, Haweeya is telling Margaret, the sympathetic Shirley Falls Unitarian  minister, the sad news that she is leaving. Margaret is sad. Haweeya muses silently.

“She [Haweeya] wanted to say, but did not, You would not be along if you Somali, Margaret. You would have brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles everywhere with you. You would not go home to your empty rooms each night. But perhaps Margaret did not mind the empty rooms. Haweeya had never been able to figure out exactly what Americans wanted. (Everything, she sometimes thought. They wanted everything.)”

It is a nice irony that the “victims” living in refuge in America prize and actually maintain what wounded and crazy America needs and seeks usually futilely, a sense of community and extended family.

Near the end of the book, having lost almost everything, Jim complains to Bob that his life is ruined. Bob explains American families to him.

“What am I going to do, Bob? I have no family.”

“You have a family,” Bob said. “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.”

Despite the harshness of his comment, Bob is describing how Americans do sometimes manage to survive and stay connected to each other as best they can.

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