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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 stadium.

Lehane adds a level of vérité by dropping in historical figures, including playwright 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 context.

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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