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Reviews by author
Onyx reviews: The Given
Day by Dennis Lehane
In The Given Day, Dennis Lehane weaves fact and fiction as he juggles
three storylines that intertwine in 1917-1919, the closing
years of World War I. He skillfully recreates the feel, the issues, the
politics, the cultural instabilities, the aromas, and the difficulties of life
during that bygone era. At 700 pages, it's a formidable book, but not a tedious
one by any stretch of the imagination.
Babe Ruth meanders through the story, first seen on the side of the tracks in
Ohio after the train his team is riding between games in the World Series
breaks down. While waiting for repairs, he hears familiar sounds nearby—a group of black men
are playing the game that is about the only
thing in the world he's good at. He asks to join them, but what starts off as a
friendly contest turns ugly when his teammates arrive. Luther Laurence, one of
the black players, learns a lesson that day. If a white man calls another white player safe
at the plate, he's safe. If a white man says the sky is green, it is.
Babe isn't exactly a Greek chorus, but he is the distilled theme of the novel. Everything in the
country is in transition—including baseball, which is being revolutionized
by the introduction of the pristine white ball. Now that the ball is clearly visible,
it's a batter's game and Ruth emerges as one
of the sport's first superstars. Though he revels at the crowds who cheer whenever he comes to
town, he is melancholy. Unable to remain faithful to his wife, or to any of his
myriad mistresses, he is introspective and guilt-ridden.
Luther Laurence's story is the second thread of this ambitious historical novel.
There's no future for him in Ohio after he's fired from his job to free up
positions for the (white) soldiers who will soon return from abroad. He hears of
a place where a black man can get decent work and live in a fancy house
that rivals the ones that white men occupy in Columbus. The booming oil business has
created a new class of wealth, and there's enough for everyone.
Greenwood, Oklahoma is everything the rumors claimed and more. And yet every
silver lining is surrounded by a black cloud. Before Luther has any
idea what his life is supposed to look like, he's forced into marriage by his
wife's aunt when she discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant. He gets a good job at the Hotel
Tulsa, but falls in with a rough element and makes some bad choices. After he ends
up on the wrong side of the local mob, he is forced to leave behind his family and
flee for his life.
He ends up in Boston, a city bubbling with unease. The Red Menace is in
full bloom because of the recent Russian Revolution. The police see Bolsheviks
and Communists behind every tree. The labor movement is building to a
climax—rumors of work stoppages are coming in from all quarters. The World Series
is stalled when the players go on strike because
management unilaterally rolled back player compensation. Employers everywhere
are using the war effort
as an excuse to deprive workers of their just deserts.
Among the worst victims are the police, whose salaries have been frozen at 1913
levels. Their resources were stretched to the limit during the Spanish Influenza pandemic
that killed hundreds in the city and thousands across the nation. They're paid
less than janitors, work eighty-hour weeks, rarely get time off, aren't paid for
overtime, and have to buy their own guns, uniforms and bullets. The precincts
are rat infested, but their demands for fair pay and sanitary work conditions
fall on deaf ears. The Boston Social Club is the closest thing they have to a
union, but it has no power. Anyway, the mayor and the police commissioner believe that
their men have too much honor and pride to ever consider striking.
Luther's new job in Boston is working in the Coughlin household. It's an
unlikely hiding place for someone who's possibly wanted by the law: Thomas
Coughlin is an Irish immigrant and a police captain. His three sons are as
different as possible—the eldest is being groomed to be district attorney, mayor,
governor and, perhaps president.
The middle son, Danny, the novel's focus, is a
beat cop through and through, who everyone expects will become a detective and,
ultimately, a captain. He's a renegade who knows what's expected
by his family, his profession and his religion, but is determined to make
his own way in the world. He flaunts his family's values by falling in love
with their maid Nora O'Shea, an Irish immigrant his father rescued from the
streets five years earlier. After their covert relationship splinters when he
learns details about her past, his brother starts
making overtures of marriage toward her.
While he sympathizes with the plight of his
police brethren, Danny's affluent background isolates him to a certain extent from
the hardships of sub-poverty-level pay.
His worldview is changed, though, when he is assigned to infiltrate organizations suspected of un-American sentiment.
His nominal goal
is to detect terrorist activities before they happen, but the real plan is to
create a pretext to deport immigrants many despise for taking their jobs. Though
Danny doesn't sympathize with the radical fringe, he can't argue with
the ordinary workers who are just looking for a fair shake.
If the book has a weakness, it is Danny's strength. His worst act takes
place before the novel begins, when he breaks up with Nora. Though Danny's
behavior toward her casts him a bad light, after that he can essentially do no wrong.
The courage of his convictions carries him over one hurdle after
another. He is the stereotypical savvy Irish cop, except he's right. Always
right. And flawless. He isn't racist in a place and at a time when it is practically part of
the ethos. He lives among the Italians, and doesn't give a second thought to
taking Luther to a baseball game, where he is practically the only black man in the
Lehane adds a level of vérité by dropping in historical figures, including
Eugene O'Neill, civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, Governor Calvin Coolidge, and an ambitious young
man in charge of the nascent Bureau of Investigations, one John Edgar
Hoover. Real-life events, such as the accidental release of 2.3 million gallons
of molasses into the streets of Boston's north end, place the story in
The novel culminates in the Boston Police Strike of 1919 after the Social Club
forms an alliance with one of the largest unions in the nation. Their
demands for equitable pay are refused repeatedly, and the city's leadership
embark on a witch-hunt against any officers involved
with organizing the union. They believe that those in charge of
the public safety have no right to strike. The anarchists are waiting to take
advantage of the chaos, but the Coughlin families have large issues and small
ones to resolve while the city teeters on the brink.
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