Elizabeth Strout’s Burgess Boys and Sonnet No 9

Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys (2013, Random House 2013)

20141116-183712.jpg This was a good book to read in New York City, as the action is divided between Manhattan and a small town in Maine.

The three Burgesses, two ‘boys’ now actually men of mature years and a ‘girl’, the twin of the younger brother, live in the long shadow cast by an accident that happened when they were 8 and 4 years old – one of them released the handbrake in the family car which then rolled down a hill and killed their father. True to Maine ways, the incident is never mentioned, and each of them finds a way of functioning more or less successfully without ever dealing with the huge emotional issues they have been left with. The brothers are both lawyers in New York City; the sister and her teenage son live in quiet mutual dependence and isolation back in Maine. The tenuous equilibrium of their lives is disrupted when the teenager gets into trouble – a prank turns out to have much more serious ramifications than he has imagined, and the family dynamic is thrown out of kilter.

The book is well within the conventions of what people who are into genre fiction call litfic. It has a dysfunctional family, adultery, childhood trauma, a dubious sexual harassment charge, a wealthy uptight Connecticut character, a hint of recursiveness (the otherwise impersonal narrator introduces herself in a prologue, and a number of events from her life feature in the imagined lives of the Burgesses), and an Important Issue. I’m not saying it’s done by the numbers; it’s engrossing, we care about all the characters, and the Important Issue is done modestly but challengingly: the butt of boy’s prank is the community of Somali refugees who have settled in the whitest state of the USA (the Burgesses are white). The way the white community, including the legal system, responds to the Somalis and deals with the fall-out from the prank provides a rich background to the family story.

Today’s sonnet is based roughly on an episode in the novel. The Slessor reference is to his poem ‘William Street’.

Sonnet No 9: a Fictional visit to New York
She came from Maine to New York City.
Her brothers thought she’d have a ball.
Instead, she thought the place was shitty,
a state fairground where every stall
was huge, creating dreadful racket
(they mocked her speech, her bright red jacket),
and all the rides were underground.
The sirens’ midnight retching sound,
The mess, the homeless, lattes, bless us!
Signs and shirts may ❤NY,
she will never add her I.
I think of that refrain of Slessor’s:
you find ugly what I find
lovely. Are we both half blind?

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