Tuesday History: Boston 1918

The Tuesday Night Club has chosen history as this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers History & Mysterytheme, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has, as ever, produced a great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.

Originally the Tuesday Night Club concentrated on Golden Age detective stories, though we’ve become more loose about this as the months roll by. For this particular topic I have very much been looking at more modern books, and this week is not going to change the trend. 

But not only that – it’s actually not that much of a crime novel. I have loved Dennis Lehane books: Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile were particular standouts. I knew The Given Day was a historical novel, but I assumed it would at least resemble his crime novels. Well, I thought wrong, buddy – though it certainly featured a lot of crime, and policemen. 

But I am committed to writing about it (it’s 700 pages long, for goodness' sake,  there was no time to work up something else historical), so here we go.


The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

published 2008

Given Day 1

Joe was dressed in his Sunday best— a chocolate brown knickerbocker suit with button-bottom pants cinched at the knees, white shirt and blue tie, a golf cap set askew on his head that matched the suit. Danny had been there when his mother had bought it, Joe fidgeting the whole time, and his mother and Nora telling him how manly he looked in it, how handsome, a suit like this, of genuine Oregon cassimere, how his father would have dreamed of owning such a suit at his age.

Given Day 2

Nora stood by the foot of the bed in her factory uniform— Ladlassie stripe overalls with a beige blouse underneath. She gripped her left wrist with her right hand. Danny poured three whiskeys and gave a glass to each of them, and his father’s eyebrows rose slightly at the sight of Nora drinking hard liquor. “I smoke, too,” she said, and Danny saw a tightening of his father’s lips that he recognized as a suppressed smile.

Given Day 3

commentary: I fully expected to love this book, and I really wanted to. But I didn’t. It was too long, too detailed and I found much of it very dull. And yet, it should have been a winner, and there were some excellent parts.

It is set in 1918/19, mostly but not entirely in Boston, and deals very much with real events, including the aftermath of WW1, and the influenza epidemic. As the book ends, Prohibition is about to come into force. (This occasional strand of the book was certainly thought-provoking: a legal decision made, a huge change in the lives of the populace, an idea that many people think is ridiculous, unworkable and will have unintended consequences. Various aspects of modern life came to mind...)

Normally this kind of a book is a 'sweeping saga', covering many years and generations, but this is far from the case here: he has chosen his tiny canvas and sticks to it. (Just like Jane Austen and her few families in a village.)

There are three main plotlines:

Danny Coughlin, from an immigrant Irish family steeped in police culture, finds himself torn between family loyalty, his respect for the police service, and the awful treatment of the police by their superiors. His struggle, and the book, will culminate in the Boston Police Strike of 1919, a dramatic and shameful series of events. He also falls in love, despite various travails.

Luther Lawrence is a black man from Ohio, who ends up in Boston on the run from his past. His story – which was the most compelling part of the book for me – shows the difficulties and endless humiliations of black life. He is trapped by the customs of the age, and by his own past.

Babe Ruth, famous baseball player, is a character who appears in bridging chapters in the book: his thoughts and feelings are imagined, and he has one meeting with Luther and a glancing encounter later.

A long way into the book, Danny and Luther become friends and their future will then be entwined. (Apparently there are two more books by Lehane, this is a trilogy, though I’m not sure how much these two characters will feature – the other books seem to be about Danny’s brother.)

There were some great things about the book. Sentences like these:
This terrible smallness of men was bigger than him, bigger than anything. 

How did two people vanish from each other’s sight in the same house? 

He wished he could have died on any other day but this. This one had carried too much defeat with it, too much despair, and he would have liked to leave the world believing in something.

--and there is a very fine passage where one man reminisces about his dead colleague and childhood friend, even though both are very flawed characters, and one is downright wicked.

On the downside - it is far far too long at 700 pages. There are hardly any women characters of any note. One, Nora, Danny’s love, is well done, but the others are wasted – particularly the woman terrorist who provides the only real surprise in the book.

The baseball sections are meaningless to those of us with no interest, and it isn’t really clear what any of the Babe Ruth sections are for.

It was readable in its way, I didn’t want to cast it aside, but it didn’t catch fire for me, I never minded putting it down, and I didn’t long to pick it up (unlike Lehane’s other books). It did seem to be immensely well-researched, but Lehane most certainly did not push his findings too hard at the reader. On the other hand, we did have the issue mentioned in one of my previous History &Mystery pieces: all the nice good characters were magically non-racist, believed in their fellow-men, respected women and their rights etc etc.

Some people think this is a Great American Novel. I wish I could recommend it more, given my high regard for the author.

Last year I read another very long book about policemen (this time in a 1960s setting) The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith, a book that infuriated and charmed me in equal measure. I would be a lot more likely to read that one again than this, which didn’t provoke any very strong feelings, apart from faint boredom at the dull passages. The good stuff (and I hope I have made it clear that there was some) was buried too deep.

Children gathering firewood in Boston in 1917, from a collection of child labour photos at the Library of Congress.

Young woman working in a factory, also 1917, same collection by Lewis Hine. (It is a very striking set of pictures of young people on the streets and at work in Boston in that era, well worth a look.)

Picture of Babe Ruth in 1919, when the book was set, playing for the Boston Red Sox, also from the LOC.


  1. I'm sorry to hear this didn't quite do it for you, Moira. As you say, Lehane is such a talented author. And I do like the overall premise very much. But, as you say, a book misses the mark if there's too much detail and too much 'saggy middle' to it. Just from your descriptions, I could see what you mean about the plot lines, too. Hmmm....I do love Lehane's writing. But still...

    1. I think I had high expectations, because he is SUCH a good writer. And many people really love this book - it just wasn't the one for me.

  2. Seems we both had a dud book for this week's TNB, though thankfully mine was no where near as long as yours. 700 pages! I'm often a bit suspicious of overly long books, as my experience of them has taught me that the extra pages come from extraneous and unnecessary padding. Boris Akunin's The Diamond Chariot which is just over the 500 pages mark is the exception to this rule as when I got the end I was gutted it had ended!

    1. I will definitely make a note of the Akunin - that's quite the compliment. This one I felt just didn't justify its length.

  3. I gave up on Dennis Lehane's books after a couple of them made me way too tense, not pleasant to read at all. (I liked the first Kenzie and Gennaro book.) I actually thought I might like this one except for the length. I did not realize it was that long.

    1. Neither did I when I downloaded it! I have loved some of his other books, so I did have high hopes...

  4. A fine account, Moira. I've really very much enjoyed the couple of Lehane novels that I've read, but no way am I going to invest 700 pages of my time in him or any other modern thriller writer. Dostoyevsky or Gogol, maybe. Lehane, nope.

    1. A very fair distinction to make! I hoped Lehane would make the pages speed by - as he has done for me in other books - but not this time.

  5. I read some of the early Lehane books featuring Kenzie and Gennaro but stalled after SHUTTER ISLAND, which I found too artificial. Didn't know he had written a pure historical novel - thanks Moira!

    1. Actually I loved Shutter Island (and liked the film too) - it was completely unbelievable, but I just enjoyed the complexity and cleverness of it. But it sounds as though this is not going to be the one to change your mind...

  6. I'm a fan of Leahane, but I thought this one was too long, too FULL, as well -- even though the historical information is fascinating. I also agree that the Babe Ruth parts didn't really mesh well. If you're not a baseball fan, you wouldn't have known that his still being in Boston meant that the action that would result in the Curse of the Bambino (which was only lifted this century ... along with the Billy Goat curse in Chicago) was still to come. Knowing that there was the foreshadowing of a Boston going into something of a decline.

    Luther was my favorite character, but when he started a new life in Oklahoma, I knew that the Greenwood massacre was just around the corner. I had so much angst for him, it was almost painful to read.

    On a lighter note, the "Drunk History" show coincidentally just covered the Great Molasses Flood which reminded me of this book...and here it is!

    1. 'Too FULL' is an excellent description of what's wrong with it - even though it should have worked, and as you say, Luther was a great character. The Molasses incident was extraordinary- had never heard of it before.


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