It’s 1959 in West Annett, a small, seemingly idyllic New England town. Tyler Caskey, the town’s minister, is living alone with his five-year-old daughter Katherine, trying their best to cope with the loss of his wife and her mother. Katherine has stopped speaking, using her voice only to throw fits at school, causing alarm amongst her teachers and the school’s principal. Tyler’s once inspired and improvisational manner of preaching has devolved into sermons that he reads off the page. The town is rife with speculation about Tyler and his small family (his younger daughter Jeannie is staying with her grandmother), but despite their fervent interest in his affairs, Tyler has few sympathetic ears to turn to.
In Abide with Me (Elizabeth Strout, 2006), the harsh current running underneath the tranquility of small-town charm is jarringly exposed. Strout does a fine job of capturing the cattiness of the townsfolk and the way they looked down upon Tyler’s wife Lauren, with her form-fitting clothes and dyed hair, too vain to be a minister’s wife in their eyes. This quaint Christian town is far from the perfect image they project: this is suburban life, where your business is everyone else’s and judgment runs beneath fake welcoming smiles and begrudgingly given apple crisps. “People not familiar with towns like West Annett may not realize as they drive through the gully of trees leading to the sparseness of its Main Street that a social hierarchy exists there, exactly as it does in prisons, sixth grades, and Beacon Hill apartment buildings,” Strout writes, in describing the unspoken discrimination of the town. “In West Annett, a great deal of weight was given to ancestry, and it was not ancestry of the tired, the hungry, the downtrodden masses – those people ostensibly welcomed in the vast doorway of New York. No, in West Annett it would not do to align oneself with the tired masses. You arrived on this shore for many reasons, but weariness would not be one of them.”
The story is told in three parts, with the middle part bringing us back to a time prior to Lauren’s death. We learn that both Tyler’s and Lauren’s parents were unhappy with the match, both sets believing that their child was marrying down. In their early years, Tyler would return home to find Lauren crying and she would complain to him, “I’m bored. You’re away all day, or even when you’re here, you’re in your study working.” The pressures of being a wife in this time are evident – Lauren has no options for personal fulfillment. She isn’t even able to form a connection with the neighborhood women, whose only form of entertainment is gossip, because, as Tyler instructs her, it is not appropriate behavior for her role as a minister’s wife. Eventually Lauren does find a friend in Carol Meadows, one of the few level-headed and amicable women in town, and confesses that her father tells her that it’s not too late for her to come home. Carol asks if she wants to and Lauren dolefully responds, “My father gives me the creeps, and my sister hates me. And my mother is a little bit of an idiot, frankly. I guess I’m staying here.” In marrying to escape her family, Lauren all but seals her destiny to live a life filled with hidden sorrow.
Truthfully, this beautifully written book is as much about the secrets we keep in our lives as it is about learning how to cope with the grief such secrets bring. The details surrounding Lauren’s death are peeled back, one leaf at a time, exposing themselves to not just the reader, but to Tyler as he struggles to accept them. So, too, are the details of the townsfolk’s lives. Charlie Austin’s marriage isn’t what it seems. Connie Hatchet is haunted by her past. Carol Meadows is perhaps the only one who lives openly with her grief and we see how different her life is because of it. The book’s title comes from a hymn – Tyler’s favorite – beseeching God to stay with the singer through times of trial, of change, of death, that with His strength, he shall triumph. It is an apt metaphor for Tyler’s life and his struggle to regain joy and meaning in the face of tragedy.