The Burgess Boys

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Strout, Elizabeth

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could.

Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Talk about how Bob, who at the age of four was held accountable for his father's death. To what degree has that childhood trauma shaped his subsequent life? The family never mentions the fatal accident. Why?

2. What about the personalities and life trajectories of the three siblings—and the differences between them? Start with Jim and Bob; then Bob and his twin sister, Susan. How do they feel about one another—and how do they treat each other? How do those relationships change by the end of the story?

3. What do you think of Helen? Are you sympathetic to her?

4. This novel is very much about place and sense of home. How do the physical manifestations of the sibling's homes, their houses or apartments, reflect their inner lives? How do the brothers view their Maine hometown...and how does Susan view New York City? How do the Somalis view Maine and their new (perhaps temporary) home in Shirley Falls.

5. How has Shirley Falls changed over the years since the three siblings grew up and the two brothers moved away? Is Shirley Falls typical of small-town America?

6. What prompts Zach to throw the pig's head into the mosque? He later explains his action as a "dumb joke." What do you think of Zach? Does a 19-year-old boy deserve to be arrested and charged with a Federal hate crime?

7. Discuss the relations between the locals and the Somali Muslim population living in Shirley Falls. How do the two populations view one another? What humiliations do the Muslims undergo at the hands of the native Mainers?

8. Zach finds an unlikely ally in Abdikarim. What is it about Zach that encourages the older man to feel sympathy for him? What are Abdikarim's own demons? Talk about the differences in the two worlds of Abkikarim: the colorful market of the Al Barakaat in Somalia and the drab greyness of the small town in Maine.

10. Talk about the way in which the prevailing political pressures shape legal strategy.

11. Why is Bob so hesitant to accept Jim's view of the accident?