Fiction Review: The Given Day

Boston in the late 1910s was a fascinating time. The North End was plagued by anarchists. A police station was destroyed by anarchists. Influenza struck the city hard in 1918. 1919 saw both a giant molasses tank spill over the North End with a horrible death toll and also bore witness to the underpaid (below the poverty line) police force go on strike.
When one thinks of the Roaring Twenties (the period just after this book's) in the United States there are a number of places that come to mind. First and foremost there is the Chicago of Al Capone. There is the New York City that appears in countless novels, television, and movies - for me F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby immediately comes to mind. Over the past several years HBO's Boardwalk Empire has given us a view of Atlantic City of the 1920s, with trips to Chicago, New York, and many other places.
Two places which do not tend to come to mind are Boston, Massachusetts and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Maybe Boston but to be honest I can't think of a ton of 1920s historical fiction set in Boston - though I'd love to discover I'm mistaken. Dennis Lehane setting a book in Boston is far from a surprise. Though I'm fairly new to his fiction (this was the third book of his I have read) his passion and knowledge of Boston shines through on every page. Boston is a character in his works. An important character at that. Tulsa, Oklahoma was not a location I had expected however...
In any case, let's get down to talking about the novel itself. The Given Day has two primary characters. The first is Luther Laurence, an African-American figuring out his place in the world. Our first encounter with Luther is when Babe Ruth and his fellow major league ballplayers run into Luther and some of his friends and play a pickup ballgame against them. When it seems the white major leaguers might lose to a group of black players they begin cheating, with Babe Ruth finally siding with his white teammates on a controversial call despite knowing they were in the wrong. Luther is not a man who is easily contented. He is not happy with his race's position in American society. Later in the book when talking to an Irish police officer about immigrants in America Luther points out, much to the displeasure of the cop, that he and his people are not immigrants - they've been Americans for generations. Luther also has a lot of growing to do. He gets his girlfriend pregnant and something just short of a shotgun wedding is arranged. He loves his wife and looks forward to being a father but at the same time he is terrified of being trapped, causing him to live his life somewhat irresponsibly. He's not a monster - he stays faithful to his wife, doesn't do the hard drugs his friends do, but it's like he needs to get something out of his system. He'd be a lot safer had he just stayed away from those friends. This choice of friends makes him run afoul of a black gangster in Greenwood, the affluent black section of Tulsa, forcing him to go on the run. A run which takes him to Boston...
Already in Boston is our other protagonist, Danny Coughlin. Danny is a first-generation Irish-American - born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Ireland. He is the eldest of three brothers. His father is a captain in the Boston police department and Danny is a up-and-coming police officer, in pursuit of a detective's badge. Like Luther, Danny is not content with his place in life. While his parents and brothers have moved out of the North End as it became more Italian, settling in an affluent neighborhood, Danny has an apartment in the North End. Unlike many of his peers he comes to understand the grievances of the communists and socialists he is pressured into infiltrating. He does, however, have no patience with anarchists; he nearly lost his life when they blew up a police station. But he finds himself having a hard time deciding where he truly belongs. He eventually becomes a major player in the Boston Social Club, the unauthorized police union. Yet for all his love of the common man and the immigrant, he shies away form his relationship with Nora, a woman whom his father rescued from the streets several years ago and went on to become something between a family member and a housekeeper. Danny learns some unpleasant things about her past and can't accept them, breaking off the relationship before the novel begins, though we don't know precisely what he learned at first.
Luther finds his way to Boston and goes to work for the Coughlin household while also being sheltered by a wealthy African-American family. He is involved with the construction of the Boston NAACP headquarters but also runs afoul of a close friend of Thomas Coughlin.
The story takes us through various events in Boston - the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, anarchist bombings, the Molasses Flood, all building up to the 1919 police strike. We get occasional glimpses of what is going on through the eyes of Babe Ruth who serves as a sort of backup viewpoint character, behind Luther and Danny. Babe Ruth is having his breakout season with the Red Sox as he gets the opportunity to focus on his hitting but he finds himself wanting better compensation. (Spoiler - he becomes a Yankee...)
Luther becomes close friends with both Nora and with Danny. Luther often calls Danny to task about his inconsistent views, not wanting to be Danny's token black friend. By keeping the characters true to themselves we get to see fully realized friendships develop. We also get to see just how difficult life could be for minorities and the poor in early 20th century America. Reflecting on the period, it is easy to understand the attraction of socialism and communism and even anarchy to the downtrodden. Just taking the police, you had people whose role it was to protect the population of Boston, yet working 80 hour weeks for a sub-poverty wage. It does not come as a surprise they unionized and went on a desperate strike.
Anyone with a basic familiarity with American history or access to Wikipedia will know the police strike does not end well, neither for Boston as a whole nor for the police. Calvin Coolidge's harsh treatment of the police catapulted him onto the national stage, making him Warren Harding's vice-president (and later, president). But the police strike serves as a climax for both Luther deciding to go home and how he will do it and for Danny to finally take a firm stand.
Throughout the book Lehane pulls no punches with the racism of the day - and also reminding us that the Irish and Italians were not quite considered white themselves. But we also see real people. Though there is much conflict between Danny and his father and we tend to sympathize with Danny, his father nonetheless has understandable motivations and does not come across as a bad man. This style makes for a very enjoyable read about a world which still resonates to this day. We too deal with terrorism, conflict between rich and poor, white and black.

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