Louise Bryan was losing sleep. It wasn’t any one thing. I promise you she’s not complaining, but sometimes the stresses of parenthood, other family and volunteer obligations, and her work at Vanderbilt add up. In the dark hours of the night she found herself picking up a book; and that is how, over a period of a few months, Louise caught up on her reading.
Louise isn’t a person who does things halfway. If she hosts our book club for dinner, she serves a warm and lovely feast on a table beautifully set. She and husband John opened their home for the Symphony Ball Patrons’ Party last year and moved heaven and earth to accommodate the tents, lights, entertainment, cases of jewelry and – most importantly! – the guests. Louise has a generosity of spirit that goes hand in hand with the warmest of hospitality.
Louise was born in New Orleans and still calls it home “because it needs as many people claiming it as possible.” She, John, and their three children moved to Nashville in 2007, and while she was sad to leave New Orleans, she hasn’t looked back. She recalls some excellent advice from her father: “Bloom where you are planted.” Though she thinks he may have picked that up from a 1970’s poster, she has found it an extremely helpful concept. “On the drive to Nashville,” she remembers, “I told my children that they will be so fortunate to be from Nashville, Tennessee. We have hiked the trails, camped the Great Smokey Mountains, biked the greenways (all the way to the Percy Priest dam, it was so much fun) and canoed the blueways.”
Louise’s children have had quite a different childhood from her own. She grew up “in a big house with a big family and always shared a bathroom and telephone with many siblings. When I go back – my Mother still lives in the house I grew up in – I can’t believe we all lived like that! My father was a Judge, the courthouse closed at 5:30 pm, his law clerk drove him home – we only had one car – and we ate dinner every night at 6 pm. We were encouraged to form our own opinions and disagree with each other. This was before it was called a Harkness discussion.” When I ask her what her parents did right, she says, “I think it is what they did not do: cook breakfast on school mornings, make lunches or snacks, organize our social activities, hire tutors, or help with homework. I remember taking the bus to school for the SAT because my mother was volunteering that morning. I blame that for my average score.”
Louise tries to cultivate a spirit of gratitude in her children, and nothing makes her happier than when she has glimpses of it. On a family trip to the Holy Land in 2010, they added the ancient city of Petra in Jordan to the itinerary. It is one of the most fascinating places they’ve ever been, and their children thanked them for being there.
Today, I’m so delighted for her to share her thoughts on one of the books she read in bed a while ago – The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout. (She’s sleeping just fine now, by the way.)
I will not invoke Tolstoy’s much celebrated first line as I introduce a discussion of some things “family;” rather, I quote an unnamed narrator’s mother: “Well, you don’t know them (the Burgess kids)… No one ever knows anyone.”
My children always ask about the book I am reading. I simplify the plot so that the children are forced to ask yet another question. Since I am one month away from having three teenage children, I seek ways to spark conversation. When my son asks what I am reading and I reply it is a “book about a boy,” he predictably replies, “So what happens?” How fun to say, “Oh, the boy throws a frozen pig head into a mosque and he gets arrested.” The line is cast and we are diving into a deep conversation. Mothers of the world please believe me when I write: stop asking about your child’s school day and find another question – it will segue into a conversation that may make memories.
I recently finished two books – a book about a boy and a book about a girl. In my life, I have had one father, one brother, one husband and one son. From these relationships, I think I know a few things about the male gender. Interestingly enough, all the men in my life are gentle souls, intelligent minded, diligent workers and great huggers. I have never heard one raise their voice – this is absolutely the truth. In my life, I have had one mother, nine sisters and two daughters. From these relationships, I think I know a few more things about the female gender. These women are all strong minded, and I have heard them all raise their voices at me at some point; no other descriptor will apply to all of them collectively – women are difficult to summarize. Tonight I discovered that reviewing books is even more difficult than writing introductions (or summarizing women), so I will only review a book about a boy. (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is available if anyone wants to write a review of a book about a girl.)
This is a book about a boy. The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, chronicles a small-town Maine family of two brothers, Jim and Bob, and their sister, Susan. We find out early in the novel that big brother Jim practices corporate law in a “prestigious law firm of important lawyers.” Jim was President of his class and a football player and later graduated Harvard Law School. He catapulted through the legal world as the defense attorney for an African American soul singer accused of killing his white girlfriend. The trial was an early televised saga, and Jim was a stunning success in acquitting his client.
Strout creates a predictable foil to Jim with his younger brother Bob, a legal aid attorney who lives under the cloud of a family tragedy which occurred when the children were toddlers. This is not a spoiler: we learn that Bob accidently caused his father’s death when all three children were in the family car parked in the driveway. While both brothers left their hometown of Shirley Falls in time to make new lives in New York City, Jim continued to assume the role of golden boy and Bob allowed his big brother to shape his own role as secondary. Jim is downright sarcastic and mean to Bob with everyday conversation reminding Bob of his status – “Out of my chair, knucklehead,” “Glad to see you, it’s been four days,” “How is life in the graduate dorms?” This is a grown man talking, and this banter is the paradigm of their relationship.
Rounding out the siblings is Susan, a twin to Bob and little sister to Jim. Susan stayed in Maine to marry a boy from a nearby small town, have a baby and then be deserted by her husband to raise her son alone. Her son Zachary was born after Susan’s earlier miscarriage of a baby girl. Susan is distraught at the birth of her son because he is a son. Susan is determined to raise a daughter so that her daughter can have the love and affection that Susan never had from her Mother. Susan believes that “her daughter will be loved without narrowness.” Zachary’s entry into the world is harsh, as Susan cannot find a Mother’s compassion toward her newborn: “ The nurse who handed her Zachary must have assumed that Susan was weeping with joy, but Susan was weeping at the sight of him: skinny, wet, blotchy, his eyes closed. He was not her little girl. She panicked at the thought she might never forgive him for this. He lay on her chest with no interest in suckling.” Zach has little chance to thrive and struggles academically and socially.
Susan’s emotional resignation is painful, and Strout’s poetic style makes the reader cringe: “Susan believed her husband, and thought that if Zach had turned out differently, his father might have stayed. So that was her fault too. These failures isolated her. Only Zach was present in her quarantine, mother and son knit together by an unspoken sense of bafflement and mutual apology. At times she yelled at him (more often than she knew), and she was always, afterward, sick with regret and sorrow.” These words are beautiful together but just hurt.
When Susan calls Jim in desperation after Zachary has been arrested for throwing a frozen pig head into a mosque during prayer time, the two siblings have not spoken for months. Do they get along? I say yes, but each Burgess sibling knows their place and has built comfort with their place. Jim is a New Yorker with a private telephone number who goes on ten-day golf vacations with his Managing Partner. Susan lives a solitary, numb life with frozen dinners and a struggling relationship with her depressed teenage son. Bob is a nice guy worried about his neighbors and getting drunk to make big city noises go away.
Strout clearly frames the Burgess family dynamic with dialogue and flashback to provide an understanding of the roles among the siblings: Jim – winner, Bob – loser, Susan – just getting by. These characteristics are established by the freak accident which killed the Burgess father as well as by the Burgess mother who was a moderate Mommy Dearest. (Do you remember Olive Kitteridge? Well, this mother is more severe.) Each sibling projects their starting point from family history and remains stranded in their personal lives.
Strout expands her exploration of “place” by including the Somali immigrants as a key element in the plot. The residents of Shirley Falls are puzzled and worried about these refugees arriving in large numbers in Maine. Too proud to admit she may be prejudiced against the dark skinned newcomers, one woman writes to the local newspaper explaining she just does not like the sound of the Somali language, she loves the Maine accent, and she is worried that the local accent may disappear. Still, this is rural America and Zach testifies under oath that he does not know what Ramadan is and that he only threw a pig’s head because cow’s heads are more difficult to find due to mad cow disease. While the Somali community believes their lives and livelihoods may be in danger in Shirley Falls, this teenage boy probably just wanted some attention. Why? Well, because Zachary has always felt out of place.
When the brothers are summoned from New York City to Shirley Falls to assist in Zachary’s defense, their rivalry returns with predictability. The Police Chief has turned the case over to the Attorney General, and Zachary may be charged with a hate crime with mandatory prison time. It is the beginning of Zachary’s trial, and his Burgess uncles take him to a hotel to prep for the witness stand. In the heat of anxiety, drink, and the never-ending bickering between Jim and Bob, the reader is stunned with a brother’s reveal. I did not see it coming, and this news makes the denouement so much more riveting. As the status quo of the Burgess the family shifts, each sibling confronts a new reality – the present tense. No one may look back into family lore for the discrete roles once accepted. Now the Burgess kids really do know each other.