BookBrowse Reviews The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

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The Given Day

A Novel

by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 720 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 720 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Diane La Rue

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Set in Boston at the end of World War I, Lehane's novel captures the political and social unrest of a nation caught at the crossroads between past and future

If you think that a fictional account of the 1919 Boston Police strike wouldn't hold your interest, you'd be wrong. Dennis Lehane, best known for his mysteries set in contemporary Boston, draws comparisons to E.L. Doctorow's classic Ragtime with his historical novel, The Given Day.

Both books combine the stories of fictional characters with actual people who lived at the time, with anarchist Emma Goldman making an appearance in both. The themes of family, loyalty, greed, class, race, secrets and power, and how they affect people and their relationships, combine to make this an unforgettable novel.

Baseball fans will be drawn in immediately as the story starts off with Babe Ruth, playing at that time for the Boston Red Sox. Ruth stumbles upon a baseball game being played by young black men in Ohio, and asks to join the game. He is in awe of their talent, and when men who love the purity of the sport play the game, it is beautiful. Lehane's description of this game of baseball accurately depicts why Americans love it so.

Racism rears its head when the rest of the Red Sox players want to join the game. When the black players' superior skills are apparent, the white players pull their rank as the ruling class, and the illusion that the game is being played by equals is over.

This incident sets the tone for the rest of the novel. While Babe Ruth is portrayed as not very intelligent, he understands one important thing: it's all about money. "The world made his head hurt - Bolsheviks overthrowing the czar, the Kaiser running roughshod over Europe, anarchists tossing bombs in the streets of this very country, blowing up parades and mailboxes. People were angry, people were shouting, people were dying in trenches and marching outside factories. And it all had something to do with money".

Cynics may say that it has always been, and always will be, this way. Money rules all, and those who have it will do anything to keep it, and if that means lying, stealing and killing, then that is what they will do.

Lehane captures the essence of his characters in just a few sentences. When Luther meets Isaiah Giddreaux, a compatriot of W.E.B. Du Bois, he says Isaiah has "the eyes of a lamb lying down in the last spot of sun on a summer evening. Or those of a lion, waiting for the lamb to get sleepy". Immediately the reader knows not to underestimate Giddreaux.

This is a period in American history that many people have forgotten, but the author brings it vividly back to life. Anarchists, both homegrown and European, and Bolsheviks, disciples of the recent Russian revolution, wanted to upend American society through violent means if necessary, creating an atmosphere of terror.

Lehane clearly wishes the reader to compare the fear that Americans felt after 9/11 to the fear that Americans in big cities like Chicago, Boston and New York felt at this time. A diner owner who sells frankfurters changes the name on the menu to "Liberty Sausages" because of the war against Germany (Freedom Fries, anyone?). In interviews about the book, Lehane calls Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who urged his followers to create 'urban terrorism', the "Osama Bin Laden of his time."

A good book leaves the reader wanting more, and although this book is 700 pages, I still wanted more. The references to historical events, such as the industrial explosion that sent cascades of molasses through the streets of Boston, the bombing of the United States Attorney General's home, and the climactic strike by the Boston police and the chaos that ensued, sent me on an Internet search for more information.

The author takes fascinating historical events and places his intriguing characters smack in the middle of them. The real characters of Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, who used the police strike to launch his national political career, Babe Ruth and a young federal attorney named John E. Hoover, add to the realism of the novel.

Lehane clearly believes that class warfare has always been with us. Danny Coughlin says, "In the war, they died by the millions. For nothing but real estate. And now, in the streets of the world, the same battle continued. Today, Boston. Tomorrow, someplace else. The poor fighting the poor. As they'd always done. As they were encouraged to. And it would never change. He finally realized that. It would never change." Could the same be said of the world today?

The characters are memorable, and their motives realistic. Lehane gives them interesting moral dilemmas in which good people sometimes choose to do bad things for complex reasons. Luther has to decide whether to betray his benefactors, whom he respects and loves, in order to save his wife. Danny has to lie to people to get a promotion he wants and deserves. The family that runaway Luther Lawrence, police officer Danny Coughlin and Irish immigrant Nora form is in many ways more authentic than the Coughlin family to whom Danny was born.

This is a big, important work of literary fiction, and it is incredibly well done. There is much that is thought-provoking, and Lehane makes his views on class warfare known. The author weaves his fictional characters, real people and events into a story that captures the reader's attention from the onset and never lets up. It is perhaps the best American novel I have read this year.

Reviewed by Diane La Rue

This review was originally published in November 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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