The Given Day is set in Boston during the period of 1918-1919 and focuses on the lives of two men, one black, one white. Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer and Luther Laurence, on the run from events in Tulsa, OK. Their lives intersect and intertwine amidst the turmoil of the flu epidemic of 1918 and the Boston Police Strike of 1919.
1918 was a troubled year in Boston and many other places. Workers were beginning to fight for rights in the workplace, for unionizing; the war in Germany was concluded but the lingering fears of Lenin and Bolshevists was still strong. Anarchy and terror swept Boston and Danny and Luther find themselves unwittingly in the midst of the turmoil, corruption and power plays.
Danny Coughlin is used to toeing the line when his father, Captain Thomas Coughlin needs something done. When Thomas and his best friend, Eddie McKenna ask Danny to infiltrate a Bolshevik organization, Danny agrees, but as he gets closer to the leaders and begins to go to meetings at the Boston Social Club, an organization for police officers fighting for rights and equal pay, Danny realizes his heart is no longer in it. He begins to see things from different perspectives and starts to believe things can change, that the future has more hope than he once believed.
Luther Laurence is running from a gruesome scene in Tulsa. Leaving behind his pregnant wife, Luther sets his feet down in Boston where he meets the Giddreaux’s, members of the NAACP and close friends of W.E.B. DuBouis. He takes a position at the Coughlin’s residence and there begins an unlikely friendship with Danny and Nora, the Coughlin’s housekeeper.
I loved Danny and Luther; it’s hard to pick which I loved more. Both of them are flawed but realize their flaws and as the novel progresses, begin to make amends for their past. Each is unhappy with the present, race issues, social issues, family. They both stand up for their beliefs, even at cost to themselves. They don’t necessarily see a different future or imagine relations between black and white, employer and employee will change, but they are sick of the present state and so in their friendship, the reader is left with the feeling that things will change, that they can change and it’s people like Danny and Luther who will bring about the change.
I was fascinated by the historical scope of The Given Day. Touching on the Spanish Influenza, WWI, Bolsheviks, worker’s reforms and the Boston Police Strike of 1919, so much detail and research were poured into seven hundred short pages and yet you don’t feel bogged down or overwhelmed. Lehane is a master storyteller and it’s evident in his ability to weave all of these threads into a clear, cohesive narrative..
Lehane has swept me away. He doesn’t have to prove he is a fantastic writer, the evidence is there on the page. The characters, the setting and the complex issues are all there and he entwines all of these, gives the characters powerful voice and brings back to life Boston in 1918. The visuals are there, the characters are life-like and you begin to feel part of the story itself. Never have I been so interested in Boston’s history. Lehane has changed that. It’s clear he loves his city, warts and all.
Two things occurred to me while I was reading The Given Day, this is so damn good and why have I never read Lehane before. I loved every page of The Given Day and I’ve just ordered two more Lehane books.