Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book 110: The Given Day

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

I've always enjoyed historical fiction (might be one of the reason I started out as a history major - of course, that wasn't necessarily a good call considering that I prefer historical fiction to nonfiction). I've also read just about every novel of Lehane's I could get my hands on this past year so obviously, I was going to read The Given Day.

It was very good - my only problem is that I didn't finish it before I left for Athens so that was one more giant book I had to take on the plane with me. Seriously though, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The only plot line I thought was perhaps unnecessary was Danny's interaction with his neighbors/bombers. I'm not saying they made the story weaker or anything but I think it would have been just as strong without that extra level of drama (on the other hand, they did make it easier for Danny's enemies to attack his judgment, so I can see the reason for their existence).

The novel takes place in Boston after World War I. The main character, Danny, is from an Irish-American family, and like his father, he is a cop. Of course, I already knew some vague history from that time. Americans were very afraid of the immigrants and their radical views (Emma Goldman, an anarchist for example, ended up being deported). Danny first ends up trying to infiltrate some different communist groups to find subversives and extremists. However, at the same time that he is attempting to infiltrate groups that preach socialism and worker's rights, he is becoming involved in the Boston Social Club, the policemen's union. There is a certain amount of concern among the higher levels of government but they are mostly attempting to create paranoia in the masses so that the workers will stay in their place. For example, after a factory accident, terrorist extremists are blamed and even after it is proven that the factory was using shoddy techniques and old equipment, the paranoia remains while big business can just keep doing what it was doing. I once read that historical fiction tends to reflect the period during which it was written more than the period it is describing so I can definitely see why this period would appeal to Lehane while also allowing him to make a statement about present day politics.

The other main character is Luther, a black man from Ohio, who ends up in Boston via Tulsa, and gets a job working as the house servant for Danny's father, Thomas. Many of the Irish that have now joined the ranks of the middle class have black servants as a way to put on airs even though as Luther notes, he doesn't have anything to do. One of Thomas's old friends, Eddie, also emigrated from Ireland but his interactions with Luther shows his extreme prejudices. Despite the fact that he wasn't even born in the States and Luther was, Eddie sees it as his country, and doesn't acknowledge Luther's citizenship. Due to Luther's past, Eddie tries to exploit him and use him to lump the NAACP in with several other terrorist groups.

Since this is historical fiction, it shouldn't exactly be a spoiler that the Boston Police end up striking (obviously, it's probably not a well remembered piece of history). While it seems that their actions didn't go down well in history, Lehane shows them very sympathetically, and illustrates how the men were manipulated and how some politicians used this incident to further their careers. Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't imagine a city rioting simply because the police force was on strike - maybe I'm just too law-abiding or believe too much in discipline, but in this case the results are rather disastrous. Of course, at this period in time there was also a large amount of discontent. I assume the government would also handle things quite differently and thus prevent the opportunity for rioting from even occurring but I might be giving too much credit there.

Since this is Boston, Lehane also has several chapters interspersed through the novel from Babe Ruth's perspective. The novel begins and ends with Ruth traveling through other cities in the States. I thought it was a nice way to talk about other cultural phenonmenons of the time, but also show that some of the same issues were prevalent throughout different areas in society - even the baseball players went on strike early on. While obviously a baseball player can't compare himself to a factory worker, the workers have few rights or powers at this time in history, no matter what the work. I'm not sure if that's ever changed much but at least certain rules were set into place for workers after this period.

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