Archives for September 2014

The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys      By Elizabeth Strout     Review by Rae Richen

The Burgess Boys Strout cover lg

Is alliteration the only reason for a familial title that doesn’t include the sister? Thus, did the Burgess boys’ sister have to be the least interesting character in an otherwise character peppered story? Does Zach, the most interesting character in the story, have to solve his problems alone, without even the help of the author? Elizabeth Strout, you are better than this. Olive Kittredge was a lot more believable, and deserving of two reads at least.

Strout puts her fictional Burgess family in so much hot water, that only a miracle could pull them out of the stew. And a miracle is all she offers. Skinny, awkward son and nephew Zach, runs off to Dad in Sweden and nobody gets to watch what makes him come back as a solid, growing human being, and more aware of loving his family. All of Zach’s good stuff happens off stage.

The Burgess Boys is a good effort to show small town stress over immigration and the influx of people we don’t yet understand. The novel is a good effort to show the fracture lines among the immigrant groups and also within one damaged family, but too much of what happens is precipitated by coincidence and not by the characters themselves – with the exception of the self-destruction of Jim Burgess. His reconstruction, if it will happen, happens after the last page and in the imagination of his family. We sure don’t get to see any of the hard stuff occur within the story as told.

Hunting for Real Dialogue

Children’s author, Julie Blair, Woody Richen and I took the Middle School Writing Club to Colonyhouse in June. Colonyhouse is a lovely John Steiner log home that belongs to Oregon Writers Colony. OWC sponsored our weekend adventures.20140628_152933
One of our excursions was into the downtown of bustling Rockaway Beach, Oregon. I expected a few tourists and the usual contingent of Rockaway town’s people, but it turned out that “our fair city” really was in bustle mode that weekend.
Before we left Colonyhouse for our excursion, we reviewed the difference between Conversation and Dialogue. As one student summed it up, “Conversation is ordinary talk, where there is no conflict, a lot of ummm and ahhh, and nothing new gets said.”
Dialogue, on the other hand is fictional conversation where every phrase moves the story forward in some way. Either the conflict ratchets up, new information gets dropped accidentally or on purpose, or one of the characters learns something significant and revealing about another, or even about herself. The result of dialogue is an aha! or a smack in the gut for one of the participants, or, as in Shakespeare, for the surreptitious listener hiding behind the arras.
The assignment of the day was to listen to ordinary Conversation and find that little chunk that can be turned into pithy Dialogue.
The kids were concerned about eavesdropping on other people’s conversation, so we defined public conversation, available for public consumption. We weren’t going to listen to whispered private messages, or to things people said next to their dining room windows, unaware that we might be lurking beneath.
We trooped into town, an eight block walk next to the coast railway, I on my crutches from a recent foot accident, swinging along, in an effort to keep up with youngsters.
As we approached the town, we discovered many more people than on ordinary weekends. And most were dressed in the garb of pirate kings and pirate jezebels of the 1600s. Bustling was the order of the day. Plus, the pirates of Rockaway Beach are good for a lot beyond “Arrr”.
The parking lot near the railway car that serves as a Visitors’ Center was filled with booths and the booths were filled with pirate lads and lassies selling pirate booty. Everyone was in good spirits and every pirate was a town greeter.
One great sea-farer bore down on me with his velvet hat and feather, his leather jerkin and one leg pegged for the occasion. “Matey,” he says to me. “I wish I had them extry legs and not this pain of a peg like I got here.”
“These are pretty fine and fast,” says I, waving my right crutch. “You shoulda fired your surgeon and kept yer gangrene.”
“That I shoulda,” he says.
And then a voice from behind me says, “You done that and you’d be traveling with the fishies.”
One of the students says to another, “Isn’t that dialogue?”
20140628_152958“Dialogue for sure.”
Yes! They’ve got the difference, I thought.
We divided into groups of two. The division was to encourage listening and not being the conversation. The students also had a little spending money from their parents, so this was also a time for them to use part of that. Pocket money took them into all the stores on main street, Highway 101, looking for the perfect buy and overhearing the customer interactions.
Woody went to the hardware store, hoping to fix the running toilet in the Colonyhouse. The students discovered Flamingo Jim’s, the epitome of all beach stores. Julie and I crossed the street to the coffee shop where we could sit and keep track of the students as they visited stores and piratical events up and down the boulevard.
We heard the booming voice of the cannon that put wads of shot out toward the sea. The coffee lady handed us our cuppa and said, “Every hour on the hour. That cannon brings in the people, but it drives away the fish.”
We enjoyed the view of our students wandering from store to store and lingering near knots of people, evidently searching out nuggets of dialogue, rockery earrings or outstanding flavors of taffy and ice cream.
After a few minutes, a gentleman came into the store and said, “Mary, We shot Jim.”
“Jim? Your friend, Jim? I thought he died of the cancer.”20140629_102555 - Copy
“Yup. He died in May. We cremated him. And, as per his wishes, at four o’clock on Pirates’ Weekend, we gave him the gun salute, and shot him from the cannon into the ocean.”
I looked at Julie and she at me. I asked, “Can you put dialogue like that in a children’s reader, Jules?”
“Maybe the next generation. Who knows what will sell by then.”
Our students came up with great nuggets as well, but those nuggets are going in their stories, so I won’t be using them here. Hunting through conversation for gems of dialogue is a great pass time, maybe especially in Rockaway Beach, where the pirates are pithy.