Elizabeth Strout follows a minister's troubled journey
On most mornings when she is not teaching or "church hopping," Elizabeth Strout is at the kitchen table writing by hand.
"I try to get in three or four hours, and I put off having lunch for as long as I can because having lunch seems to change the energy flow," Strout says during a phone call to the Park Slope, Brooklyn, home she shares with her husband, a legal aid lawyer. Strout herself studied law at Syracuse University and practiced briefly and unhappily before pursuing her calling as a fiction writer. The couple's 22-year-old daughter recently left for South Africa, where she now works in AIDS education. "If I'm lucky," Strout continues cheerfully, " I'll get through till one o'clock. And then I throw everything out. And that's a morning's work."
Which is why it took Strout six or seven years to complete her critically acclaimed, best-selling first novel Amy and Isabelle, and another seven to publish her deeply moving and satisfying new book, Abide with Me.
Set in a small town in Maine in the late 1950s, Abide with Me tells the story of Reverend Tyler Caskey, the popular local Congregational minister, who is struggling to care for his two young daughters and to maintain some semblance of himself after the shocking loss of his wife, Lauren.
"I was interested in writing about a religious man who is genuine in his religiosity and who gets confronted with such sadness so abruptly that he loses himself. Not his faith, but his faith in himself," Strout says.
In his sorrow and confusion Tyler increasingly measures his actions against those of his hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian jailed and later killed by the Nazis during World War II, whose writings became immensely influential in the 1950s. It is an impossible standard to live up to, and Tyler's sense of spiritual inadequacy contributes to his growing alienation from his flock. Strout's deft, knowledgeable and unobtrusive use of Bonhoeffer's writings and other religious texts ("I have four different versions of the Bible," she says at one point) adds immensely to our feeling for the texture of Tyler's inner turmoil.
"But I don't see this as a book of theology or religion," Strout hastily adds. "It is the story of a minister. And I needed to know what it would be like to be a minister so I read what Tyler would have read to acquaint myself with the sorts of perceptions he would have had." Nevertheless, Strout confesses a longstanding interest in theology. And she jokes that instead of being a churchgoer, she is a church hopper. "I came up with that name one night a long time ago when friends were talking about being bar hoppers. I thought, oh, I should probably be called a church hopper because I like to go to different churches and observe what they do. I'm really interested in churches and I go to them a lot."
A similar sort of wry, self-deprecating humor pervades much of Abide with Me, especially in Strout's portrayal of the interactions among Tyler's parishioners and the other townspeople of West Annett, Maine. In fact, Strout's shrewdly observed and deadly accurate picture of small-town life in Cold War America - by turns snarky and supportive - is one of the great charms of the book.
"I come from Maine," Strout says, "and both my parents come from eight or nine generations of Maine people. Even though I've been in New York for so many years, there's something deeply familiar to me about that kind of small town. There is a way of life up there that's disappearing. I did not set out to do it. Not at all. But the pressure inside of me was asking me to write about these people, and it occurs to me that I am sort of documenting the end of an era."
The central drama of Abide with Me arises from Tyler's inability to perceive how traumatized his kindergarten-aged daughter, Katherine, has been by the unfathomable loss of her mother. A sweet, vulnerable child now almost totally withdrawn - except when she throws screaming fits in school - Katherine is the novel's most emotionally wrenching character. Her misinterpretation of her father's relationship with his housekeeper sets off the final chain of events that leads Tyler to the brink of emotional and spiritual ruin.
"Katherine's point of view came rather naturally to me," Strout says. "Who knows where these things come from? My grandmother died when I was five and maybe without knowing it I was drawing on feelings of bafflement I had about that loss."
Tapping into such feelings is an essential part of Strout's approach to writing. "I sometimes think it's a bad idea to have ideas about what you want to do," Strout says. "Because the minute you think you know what you want to do, you're forcing a story in a certain direction when you really should pay more attention to just going where it seems to want to go itself. For me ideas aren't worth a whole lot. What is worth something is the emotion - attached to a vision of a character - just pressing up inside my chest in the morning after I finish my coffee."
But, Strout says, this approach sometimes "feels like my hand is in a cardboard box and I can't see anything in there but I just keep feeling around and get hold of a shape and think, yep, this is the right shape. And if that shape happens to be Katherine, well, all of a sudden I can see her."
"I wish tremendously that I was faster about all this," Strout adds. "But, you know, it didn't turn out to be that way."
Perhaps it doesn't matter. The perceptive, resonant, beautifully written Abide with Me was certainly worth the wait.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.