Dennis Lehane, already well-known for his detective series, thrillers, and movies made from his books, this time around tries his hand at historical fiction. The result of his efforts, The Given Day, is so good that it will have his readers wishing he had tried it years earlier.
Set in World War I-era Boston, The Given Day describes one of America’s great cities at a pivotal point in its history. Social unrest and demand for change are making the rich and powerful uneasy, and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to remain atop the heap, no matter the cost to those struggling for their very survival. Labor unions are so much on the move that even the Boston Police vote to unionize, and the NAACP is making strides in the city at the same time that anarchists are threatening to blow it up. In the midst of this already chaotic situation, Boston is hit hard by the Spanish flu epidemic and must depend on a police force threatening to walk off the job.
The Given Day features three sets of characters whose paths cross, sometimes in significant ways and sometimes only in passing, over a number of years: the Coughlins, an Irish family headed by a prominent police captain; Luther Laurence, a black man hiding in Boston from a murder charge in Oklahoma; and Babe Ruth, the great Red Sox pitcher and slugger.
Thomas Coughlin, a police captain who came to Boston from Ireland as a young man, is proud of his sons, especially Danny, the one who followed him into the department. But things go bad when Danny finds that he has more in common with the people he has been asked to spy upon than with those to whom he reports what he learns. Danny reluctantly becomes a leader in the effort to unionize the Boston Police Department and one of the key players in the decision to have the police turn in their badges in protest of their poverty level wages and horrible working conditions.
Luther Laurence is forced to kill a black Oklahoma mobster in self-defense but allows another one, already critically wounded, to live. Luther knows, though, that the man he spared will never return the favor. He immediately leaves the state, abandoning his wife and unborn child in the process. Working as a houseman and driver for the Coughlin family, Luther feels safe until he attracts the curiosity of another police captain determined to learn his story.
Babe Ruth makes several appearances in The Given Day, but it is in the book’s prologue that Lehane makes him most memorable. That section of the book, some twenty-seven pages long, in which Ruth and some other professional baseball players unexpectedly find themselves challenging a group of amateur black ballplayers to a game in the middle of nowhere, should be published as a short story on its own. It exposes the racism of the day and introduces both the Babe and Luther, all of it centering on one of the best descriptions of a baseball game I have ever read.
The Given Day, weighing in at just over 700 pages, is thrilling historical fiction at its best, a book that will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to discover it.