Abide With Me
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by Elizabeth Strout
Tyler Caskey, the hero of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Abide With Me, is the loneliest man in town. His young wife has died, leaving him to take care of their five-year-old daughter, who is too scarred by grief to talk to him. In his role as the minister of the Congregational Church in West Annett, Maine, he takes on the problems of many in the community, yet feels he must hold himself apart and keep his own sorrows private. The parishioners who used to reach out to him have reacted to his increasing awkwardness by pulling back. And even his connection with God seems for the time being to have disappeared.
Caskey’s profound sense of isolation is felt, though to a lesser extent, by others in West Annett as well. The novel is set in the late 1950s, when many of the men in town are still recovering from their experiences in World War II and the Korean War, yet aren’t really able to talk about those experiences with their wives. Meanwhile, some of the women, who feel desperately bored by their lives, aren’t able to express this frustration to their husbands. But no one has any trouble communicating about Tyler Caskey. As the minister, once a source of strength for the town, falters under his burdens, gossip starts to swirl about him, taking on an insidious life of its own.
[The rumor] provided the townspeople with the chance to complain without guilt about their minister, who had increasingly disappointed them. Tyler’s behavior was gone over with such enthusiasm that the fact he had told Alison Chase her apple crisp was delicious when he did, in fact, hate apples, took on the sheen of questionable character. Doris Austin told people that he had promised her a new organ—or that he almost had—and then backed away from it. Fred Chase said he had never heard a Congregational minister quote the Catholic saints the way Tyler did. Auggie and Sylvia Dean wondered about that young woman who showed up in the back pew these days—was it true she sold cosmetics in Hollywell? And hadn’t he been skating with her? Well, then.
The ways that gossip in a community spreads and grows are at the center of Strout’s previous novel as well. Amy and Isabelle, which explores both the private and the public unraveling of the relationship between a mother and a daughter, is, like Abide With Me, a quiet novel whose power comes not so much from dramatic events as from Strout’s skillful way of laying emotions bare.