I have read a few books by Dennis Lehane. Mystic River, later made into a decent movie, was quite a good thriller, but I was disappointed with Shutter Island, which was more of a psychological thriller. For some reason, I was expecting another thriller when I picked up The Given Day, but it is definitely not that.
A primary character in this novel, Danny Coughlin, is a police officer in Boston in 1918 from an Irish American family. Danny is asked to infiltrate some suspected terrorist groups and in the process becomes interested in blue collar workers’ rights and very involved in trying to start a policemen’s union. This does not go over particularly well with his police captain father or district attorney brother.
Another main character, Luther Laurence, has to leave his wife and unborn child in Oklahoma after becoming involved in a murder. He ends up in Boston with some distant relatives and is hired by Danny’s father, as a houseboy. His predecessor leaves him an interesting letter about working for the Coughlin family.
“If you are reading this, I am dead. If you are reading this, you are also Negro, as was I, because the white folk on K, L, and M, Streets only hire Negro housemen. The Coughlin family is not so bad for white folk. The Captain is never to be trifled with but he will treat you fair if you don’t cross him. His sons are mostly good. Mister Connor will snap at you every now and again. Joe is just a boy and will talk your ear off if you let him. Danny is a strange. He definitely does his own thinking. He is like the Captain, though, he will treat you fair and like a man. Nora is a funny thinker herself but there is not any wool over her eyes. You can trust her. Be careful with Mrs. Coughlin. Do what she asks and never question her. Stay well clear of the Captain’s friend, Lieutenant McKenna. He is something the Lord should have dropped.”
This letter really sets the stage for what happens next. Nora is a servant that the family took in five years ago and she becomes an important figure in both Danny and Luther’s lives. Friendships across racial lines are unusual for this time in Boston. Also, Luther does get on Lieutenant McKenna’s bad side with serious repercussions.
The third story that is interwoven between these two is that of Babe Ruth. This story is loosely tied in with the Babe meeting Luther at the beginning of the novel and Danny at the end. It is always interesting to me to take a historical figure and attribute various actions or thoughts to that person. And, for the record, I don’t know if Luther or Danny are historical figures as well or simply fiction.
The Given Day is a relatively long novel with many characters. Each character is so distinct that I never had to remind myself about who was who or who had done what. I think this is a significant and complex work that gives you a glimpse of Boston during a tumultuous time.
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