The Given Day


Dennis Lehane




Date Reviewed:

August 18, 2009

bought this novel when I was vacationing in Iceland and I needed a big book to read for the seven hour flight back to Seattle. It cost 14000 kronars! Iceland is supposed to have one of the more literate societies of the world (they must read a lot during the long winter nights), so I am surprised that the price of books there is so steep.

The Given Day is a historical novel set in Boston at the end of World War 1. The main plot line follows the events that led up to the strike by the Boston police. But the book covers a much broader set of topics, it describes the upheaval in our country at the end of World War I. At that time, the nation was absorbing a huge influx of immigrants. It was also coping with a killer plague of deadly influenza that was devastating the country. It was a time of uncontrolled capitalism, which led to horrendous working conditions that impoverished the working class. The misery and injustice caused many people to talk about organizing for social justice, forming unions, embracing communism or socialism, ending racism - there is a lot going on.

The story is told through the eyes of two men: a white Boston policeman named Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, and a black man named Luther Laurence. Luther has the talent to be a major league baseball player, but the color of his skin prevents him from competing in the professional leagues. Prejudice is rampant in the early twentieth century, and not just against "the coloreds": the Irish, Italians, Jews, Slavs, Catholics - all are treated as second class citizens. People work 70 hours or more per week and are lucky to get poverty wages. There are no health benefits, no vacations, no labor laws, no minimum wage. Luther is a smart and capable man, in love with a beautiful woman, but unfortunately he tends to make friends that aren't completely law abiding. Luther is young and feels immortal, so he gets into some trouble - not that the law enforcement officers of that era need much of an excuse to bully a black man. Indeed, in that era a black man could be accused of anything, no matter how baseless the charges. There certainly was no notion of civil rights in that era.

The leaders of the city ask Danny Coughlin, who is a popular and respected member of the police force - (This is despite the fact he is the son of the police chief) - to "go under cover" and attend some of the meetings of the Boston policeman who are suspected of forming a union. The city leaders promise Danny that he will be promoted to detective if he will yield a list of the organizers. Despite the fact that the wages of policemen have been frozen at 1905 pay levels, Danny has not considered joining a union, but he starts to read their literature and attend the meetings, he becomes exposed to their arguments, and realizes that he agrees more than he disagrees with their position.

Despite the fact that Danny is Irish and his father is wealthy, he lives in a small flat in the Italian area of the city. Unlike so many of his fellow citizens, Danny displays a modern sensibility - he is not a racist, he treats women politely, he questions authority yet remains a solid law abiding citizen. Indeed, Danny acts heroically at certain points in the novel when he is confronted with the bomb throwing anarchists who wish to use violence to overthrow the government.

The book ends with the strike by the Boston Police. Riots ensue, the national guard is called out, violence escalates. The book is interesting throughout, it is sobering to read about conditions in America less than a hundred years ago, and to realize how many rights and liberties that we take for granted today did not exist back at that time. This is a good novel; I knew that it would be since I had read other works by Dennis Lehane, which was why I was willing to part with my 14000 kronars.