For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Strout

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2006, 294 pp.

Abide With MeOh, what a beautiful novel this is. It is a profound testimony to grief, community, ministry and the relationship between a church and its pastor. I need novels for myself, for my own emotional well-being. Sometimes, I have a tough time breaking down and working through my own feelings. The problems are too close and too complex and they feel overwhelming. A good novel lets me do the emotional work a bit vicariously–weeping, grieving, sitting in silence. Abide With Me was just that kind of book.

The novel tells the story of Rev. Tyler Caskey, a pastor to a small town church in Maine. It is the story of his marriage to an unlikely candidate to be a pastor’s wife, of their love and their struggles and her untimely death. It is the story of his daughter Katherine, age 5, and how his grief and her own break down in her life. It is the story of the members of the parish–the organist who wants a new organ and her husband reckoning with his unfaithfulness; the housekeeper who befriends him in spite of her shady past; the teacher and school psychologist who play out their own assumptions on him and his daughter, on and on. It is a story about the heavy, heart-wrenching work of grief, the toll it takes on a life to engage that work, and the even greater cost of ignoring it. In the end, it is a story of redemption and the power of community to move beyond rumor and gossip into love. It is a story of imperfection and vulnerability between pastor and congregation, told with hope and affection.

Strout includes many insightful gems from the life and mind of the minister, like Tyler’s desire for “The Feeling,” the “profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there” (15)  and his reflections and comparisons of his own calling with that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which many a pastor has done (including this one). At one point, his sister accuses him of caring too much about the feelings of others: “If you’re always thinking of the other person first, you don’t have to bother with what you’re feeling. Or thinking.” (123)

When Tyler’s grief finally overtakes him and he breaks down in the pulpit, the organist subtly begins playing “Abide With Me,” his favorite hymn, while the head deacon comes forward and takes his hand. His seminary professor then tells him,

Your congregation, it seems to me, has given you love. And it’s your job to receive it. Perhaps before now they gave you an admiring, childlike kind of love, but what happened to you that Sunday–and their response to it–is a mature and compassionate love. (286)

I am blessed to serve that kind of congregation, and I was blessed to read about Tyler Caskey’s congregation, the way they cared for each other as pastor and congregation. Thank you, Elizabeth Strout, for Abide with Me.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2008, 286 pp.

Olive KittredgeOlive Kitteridge is not a novel in the traditional sense, nor is it simply a collection of short stories. It’s more like a series of highlights or video clips assembled in chronological order but not necessarily united by a single story arc. The single unifying presence is Olive Kitteridge, a woman large in physical presence and charismatic influence on whatever room she enters. She is not charming or adored–she is often feared, loathed, or avoided. Sometimes she is the center of the story–it is her story–but often she is only a minor character on the set, someone who simply helps advance the plot in some simple way.

Each of the thirteen stories is self-contained and stands on its own, beautifully written and intricate with details of the characters’ internal lives. Several of the stories feature her husband Henry or her son Christopher. Most of the stories, though, center on various people in the Maine town where they live. Strout picks up on the intimate back stories of the woman who plays piano in the bar, the cashier in the grocery store, the man who moved away and returned for a visit. Olive herself is a teacher, and Henry the town pharmacist.

For most of the stories, the character’s live and development is contained in the one short chapter focused on them. But Olive evolves throughout the book, as do our impressions of her. Christopher grows up, Henry ages–but only Olive matures and develops in ways that are deeper and richer as the various stories unfold through her and around her. I was surprised and touched by how my own perceptions of Olive evolved throughout the course of the book. I was cheering for her at the end.

Strout’s prose was beautiful from beginning to end, but there was one section I want to record, because it speaks to my professional life (and to a couple of the books I just reviewed here and here).

In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly tries to deny–that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore–for Henry–that God’s presence is blessing them. (15)

I am looking forward to reading more from Elizabeth Strout. I struggled a bit to get into Olive Kitteridge, because I wanted to dive into a traditional novel instead of the separate stories. However, her beautiful prose and intricate characters kept me going. It was well worth it.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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