The Given Day is a treat; not only does Lehane tell a great and thorough story, but tempers the hard-edged personalities of both his characters and his settings with a smooth, soft touch. Through the central characters of Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence, the reader is taken aboard a fast moving train into the pulsing heart of Boston circa 1919. If you ever thought history was boring, it’s time to think again.
Danny Coughlin was was born into Boston Police Department (BPD) royalty. Irish, tough, and committed to the brotherhood, Danny joins the ranks as his father and godfather did before him. Though his relations maintain top positions within the BPD, Danny is given no preferential treatment and opts to live within the confines of his Italian beat in the South End of Boston. It is in this neighborhood that we are introduced to the world of the immigrant. Poor, hungry, and full of discord, Danny listens to the daily soapbox rants of the dissidents and their increasing cries of inequity as he walks the streets that have become his home.
Luther Laurence, a smart, young black man, arrives in Boston on the lamb from the thriving city of Tulsa. Tossed around by fate and tethered to the social constraints of the time, Luther finds himself living in the home of a prominent black family where he is welcomed with open arms. Luther’s benefactors provide him with a job at the home of Danny’s father, and it is in this capacity that our characters become intertwined.
When Luther is hired on as a houseman for the Coughlin family, an unlikely friendship forms when he and Danny cross paths. At a time when blacks and whites did not intermingle, and was dangerous to do so, Danny and Luther manage to forge an unbreakable bond. It is through this bond that we are exposed to the tyrannical workings of the race and class systems of the early 1900’s.
As the cries of the immigrant radicals escalate, so do those of the BPD. With ghastly wages, hours, and living conditions, the heat in the BPD is rising, calling for a unionized movement. Forced to handle the radical terrorists (Bosheviki, Reds), provide safety through the Spanish Influenza pandemic (horrific), and deal with the internal corruption of the political workings of the department (enter Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge), the BPD becomes a pressure cooker on the verge of explosion. The amped up volume and actions of both the radicals and the BPD injects adrenaline into the vein of Boston, setting the city into a perpetual state of anxious and volatile agitation, ultimately placing the reader atop a cresting wave.
Lehane’s sensitive prose permeates what is an otherwise gritty, bloody-knuckled epic tale. Rebel Federico wistfully utters, “Music speaks for the soul because words are too small,” or Danny reflects on his father as “a giant in the BPD, yes, but he wore it lightly…displays of vanity, after all, were the province of minor gods.” Waxing poetic of the rough hewn passion of the Irish, Danny speaks to his little brother Joe of his friendship with Luther-
You can have two families in this life, Joe, the one you’re born to and the one you build. Your first family is your blood family and you always be true to that. That means something. But there’s another family and that’s the kind you go out and find. Maybe even by accident sometimes. And they’re as much blood as your first family. Maybe more so, because they don’t have to love you. They choose to.
Such rich nuggets appear throughout the book and cumulatively lend credence to Lehane’s craft as a writer and a storyteller. Lehane doesn’t disappoint. By the end of The Given Day, the reader finds they have unexpectedly amassed a wealth of historical information and garnered a fresh sympathy for the immigrant experience as well. As the reader stands in Luther Laurence’s shoes, you are forced to take a hard look at the black experience and comes out richer for the read.
*Note: Both of Lehane’s parents emigrated from Ireland. He was raised in the Boston area and obviously knows it like the back of his hand. As we are swept through the story we absorb every morsel of the scenery causing it to play out like a movie in our minds. Is it any wonder that the film industry snatched rights to The Given Day? (Columbia Pictures) Here it will join Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island (Lehane also wrote for The Wire).
-Post by Megan Shaffer