Elizabeth Strout's "Abide with Me" is the story of Tyler Caskey, a minister in the small town of West Annett, Maine, in 1959. Tyler had been married to Lauren, a flighty woman from a wealthy family who could not adjust to living on a tight budget and acting the part of a "minister's wife." Lauren bore Tyler two daughters before she died, leaving the widower bewildered and shaken. Tyler's overbearing mother, Margaret, takes in his toddler, Jeannie, while Tyler tries to manage with five-year-old Katherine. He depends on his devoted housekeeper, Connie, to keep things afloat. However, since Lauren's death, Katherine has been nearly mute with grief and she has begun to act out in school. Although Tyler has always been a popular minister whose congregation admires his impassioned sermons, rumors begin to spread that he is not the man they thought he was. Soon, Tyler questions his vocation, and his faith in himself and the townspeople he has served so well starts to crumble.
One of Strout's strengths is her attention to detail. She describes West Annett so vividly that the reader has a perfect mental picture of this place and its inhabitants. Strout depicts the bored housewives who have little to occupy their minds other than shopping, cooking, cleaning, charity work, and gossip. Tyler's job is a difficult one. He has to advise his congregants when they are in trouble, keep the church going on the limited funds that are available, and withstand the barbs of certain outspoken individuals who have their own agendas.
The author's portrait of Tyler is magnificent. He is a gentle and highly intelligent man, whose idol is the great Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, who was born in 1906, defied the Nazis and gave up his life for his beliefs. Tyler constantly quotes Bonhoeffer and thinks about his teachings, especially the statement that "man's sin was flight from responsibility." Tyler wants to take responsibility for his parish and for his family, but he lacks the joy and enthusiasm that used to propel him.
"Abide with Me" is eloquent, literate, and filled with gorgeous imagery. It has the ring of truth. We are all imperfect human beings struggling to live with our frailties, to give and receive love, and to meet life's hardships and obstacles with as much grace as we can muster. However, at times, we fail and what should we do when we disappoint ourselves and others disappoint us? How can we go on when our religious faith falters? Strout provides no easy answers, but she makes the reader empathize with her flawed characters, and we inevitably see ourselves in them. Although the book takes place in the late fifties, when women were repressed, racism was rampant, and the various social classes were strictly stratified, there is a universality in this work that still makes it worth reading today.