In July 2006, the head of a pig was rolled into a mosque in Lewiston during prayers. That act, targeting the Somali Muslim community, was seen as a profound desecration. Facing criminal charges, the man responsible, 33-year-old Lewiston resident Brent Matthews, claimed it was a prank and his attorney described it as an act of stupidity, not a hate crime.

Novelist Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, The Burgess Boys, retells that story, adhering to some facts but fictionalizing the characters and place. Now we have Zach Olson, a shy and solitary 19-year-old member of the Burgess family and resident of the fictional Shirley Falls, a post-industrial mill town, like Lewiston, in the throes of transition.

Strout knows Maine well. She grew up in the state and still maintains a residence. Shirley Falls has been the setting for other Strout novels. A town in decline, forced to adapt in unpredicted ways may be a good metaphor for life changes in families she describes, like the Burgesses. 

The Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, left Shirley Falls for college and then careers in law. Relocated to New York, they are as different in their practices as they are in personality.

Jim is narcissistic and sure of himself; Bob is withdrawn and full of self-doubt.  And with good cause.  The family story is that it was he, as a young child waiting in the car with his twin Susan, who allowed the vehicle to roll down the driveway while his father was standing alongside, striking and killing him. Bob lives with profound guilt, feeling responsible for his death.

Susan stayed put in Shirley Falls. Her ex-, Zach’s father, moved away and has little contact with his son. Both Susan and Zach seem depressed. After Zach rolls a pig’s head into a storefront mosque, the Burgess boys come back to help. They are outsiders now, and we see with their perspective how the town has changed. 

Through the book’s narratives—family and community members speaking—we learn details relevant to the real situation. The Somali community in Lewiston consists of Bantus and Somalis who were allowed, beginning in 2003, to emigrate to the United States as political refugees, fleeing from a homeland torn by civil war. Originally placed in urban areas, many families looked for smaller towns as better setting for raising children. Lewiston was considered family-friendly.

Over a six-year period, 3,500 arrived. Lewiston now has the largest concentration of Somalis in America. Strout helps us imagine their lives and the effects of trauma; these refugees survived atrocities like internment, starvation, rape and having family members murdered.

She also shows us some of the reactions, like a rally by a white supremacist group. In the actual event, Brent Matthews was alleged to have made racially biased postings on his My Space page. Less than a year after the incident, he killed himself.

Strout’s book has a less tragic ending, although one with a lot of loose ends.  We are left to puzzle over what will become of Zach and the Burgesses, with relationships and careers in transition. There is some common psychological ground hinted at for all the parties involved.

In childhood, Brent Matthews lost a younger sister, struck by a car. The Burgess siblings lost their dad that way, and Zach lost his through the divorce of his parents. The Somalis have lost numerous family members to death, “disappearance” and relocation.

The loss of loved ones, it would seem, creates profound feelings of anger, grief, guilt and fear. Surviving requires rebuilding faith in life, believing it will be worth living. The Burgess Boys illuminates that effort.