The Given Day is a fiery epic set in Boston after the First World War, with a story and characters as compelling as The Godfather.
Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, can describe people and scenes with the sharpness of a high-resolution camera and their feelings with the eloquence of a poet.
The end result is stunning. The Given Day is a big, fast-paced novel which blends action, drama and bursts of lyricism in a faithful recall of an America gone and forgotten. When Boston overflowed with poor immigrants, anarchists and communists and the policemen patrolling the streets could barely feed their families.
The simmering unrest hit a flash point in September 1919 when the policemen went on strike and the city exploded. Boston burnt as rioters looted and fought.
Lehane describes the mayhem and the tensions that sparked it. The poor immigrants, the policemen’s long hours and low pay, the communists and anarchists and the corruption in the city are all described in detail.
But, above all, it’s a story of three people: Danny, a police captain’s son and a policeman himself, who is drawn into the strike; Luther, an African American fugitive who is hired by Danny’s father as a servant; and Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball player.
While Danny and Luther become friends, Babe Ruth’s only connection to them is that he had once played against Luther. He is just the local sporting hero, then playing for the Red Sox.
Danny and Luther’s friendship is remarkable in a society seething with racial prejudice.
Luther — who left behind his pregnant wife, Lila, in Oklahoma after a black gangland killing — had to give up his getaway car to a white man in Mississippi. The man threatened to lynch him if he didn’t.
In Boston, a racist police officer, who discovers his past, tells him to plant false evidence against civil rights activists. Blacks can’t have equal rights, says the Irishman. He shoots a black man dead in front of Luther to stress he, too, will be killed unless he does as he is told.
Danny, as a police officer, sees the injustice and persecution around him — and develops sympathy for the underdogs.
Boston, however, is divided along ethnic lines. The Irish turn against the East Europeans during the riots.
But this is also a love story — of Danny and Nora, who used to work for his family, and Luther and Lila.
It is Luther who looks after an ailing Nora when she is estranged from Danny and working at a factory.
When Danny, badly beaten in the riots, wants her back, it is he who reunites them.
Yet he hesitates when she asks him to dance with her at her wedding. He feels uncomfortable before all the white guests.
The women are more spirited than the men. Lila returns every letter Luther sends her and then finally writes to him. Inside the letter is a picture of his new-born son. Shedding tears of joys, he seeks out his best friends — Nora and Danny — to share his happiness.
Will Luther be reunited with his wife?
Will Danny get over his injuries? Can he be a policeman again after taking part in the strike?
The Given Day is a heart-warming epic from a turbulent chapter in American history.
Baseball legend Babe Ruth provides a comic counterpoint to the tempestuous lives of Danny, Nora and Luther. While they battle with adversity, he is having sex with his club owner’s mistress.
But he is ashamed — ashamed that he and his team mates cheated the only time they played against Luther and other blacks.
He lives for the game, the thwack of the bat against the ball, and the ecstasy when it hits the sweet spot. Here’s Babe in top form:
Babe stepped back into the box. He tried to keep the glee from his eyes. Columbia George went into his windup, and yup, his face corked into that telltale grimace it got whenever he brought the fire, and Babe gave it all a sleepy smile.
It was not cheers he heard when he scorched that fresh white ball toward the Tampa sun. Not cheers or oohs or aahs.
Silence. Silence so total that the only sound that could fill it was the echo of his bat against cowhide. Every head in Plant Field turned to watch that miraculous ball soar so fast and so far it never had time to cast its shadow.
When it landed on the other side of the right field wall, five hundred feet from home plate, it bounced high off the racetrack and continued to roll.
After the game, one of the sports scribes would tell Babe and Coach Barrow that they’d taken measurements, and the final tally was 579 feet before it came to a full stop in the grass. Five hundred and seventy-nine. Damn near two football fields.
Phew! You can almost see it. The Given Day is a blockbuster that’s almost like a a movie.