…by Dennis Lehane
Every so often you read a novel that re-affirms your belief in the strength of good fiction writing. Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day is such a novel. It’s a book about love, loyalty, and sacrifice. It features compelling, realistic characters and a fascinating setting with parallels to our own time. And Lehane is an excellent writer with a great sense of timing, dialogue, and narrative structure (No wonder guys like Eastwood and Scorsese make movies from his books).
You could say it’s historical fiction, as the story takes place in 1918-19 Boston. The sense of history and place seems palpable, genuine. And what a fascinating, chaotic moment in America. World War I is nearly over, and the boys are about to come home to high unemployment and low wages. The great Flu epidemic spreads fear and death. Prohibition is on the horizon. Lenin and the Bolsheviks have only just taken control of Russia, and Europe and the States are on guard against the spread of Communism. Anarchists, Communists, and honest-to-God terrorists live among the ethnic slums of the cities, spouting rhetoric and occasionally setting off bombs. In Boston, the ward bosses still reign and Babe Ruth plays for the Sox. America is struggling to become the great power of the century, and it’s off to a messy and dangerous start.
Into this setting Lehane throws the two main characters, Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence. Danny is the son of an Irish immigrant who’s risen to Captain in the Boston PD. Also a policeman, he’s at odds with his father’s ambitions for him and his feelings for Nora, an immigrant working in his father’s home. Danny is tall and good-looking and has a way with people. He’s also a decent kind of guy who doesn’t like racism and can get along with all the ethnic immigrants in his old Boston neighborhood. He finds himself drawn into the budding Policemen’s Union – after all the coppers haven’t had a raise since before the war, they work 70-80 hour weeks and make less than street cleaners and garbage haulers. When his father and uncle offer him a detective’s shield for infiltrating the Communists and socialists, he accepts, but soon starts to have reservations. Danny can see how the money men of the time are moving to link the Bolsheviks and radicals with the labor movement. He also learns more about how his father and uncle truly operate.
Luther is a young black man working at a munitions factory in Ohio. He’s trying to get by and have some fun, without having to settle. This is a tough proposition for a black man at that time, because the racism was stifling and pervasive. Luther’s the kind of man who doesn’t just want to settle for what White America will throw his way; he has a sense of self-worth and confidence that either draws others to him or infuriates them. He doesn’t want to settle down either. So Luther and his gal Lila head west to Tulsa, a city with enough oil wealth to have a black side of town with its own businesses and middle class. But Luther has a nose for trouble and doesn’t react well to Lila’s pregnancy and aggressively Christian Aunt and Uncle. He soon runs afoul of the local crime boss and finds himself fleeing… to Boston. From there Luther meets the local NAACP contingent and goes to work for Danny’s father. And he tries to figure out what’s really important in his life and what he truly values.
These are strong characters and they face considerable hurdles. There was a lot of ugliness and strife, hatred and fear in early 20th Century Boston, and Lehane meets it head-on. You might be able to predict some of the situations and conflicts Luther and Danny will face, but that makes them no less compelling. Lehane writes great dialogue and has an excellent sense of pacing, which causes the pages to fly. And at its heart, The Given Day is about love and family, courage and redemption. Highly recommended – this is the kind of book I’ll go back to for reference and writerly inspiration.