Bonnie’s Book Bytes: “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane

Bonnie Godas

Sometimes I forget how fortunate I am to have grown up in the Boston area. There is so much to explore here, and historically, it is a treasure trove. Many writers have shared their experience and compassion for this city, exhibiting the best and worst of times. Dennis Lehane was born and bred in Boston; he actually went to school at B.C. High, a stone’s throw away from UMB. Lehane has given us his eighth book called The Given Day, a historical novel based on the events in Boston from 1918- 1919.

The Given Day is a story of the turbulent times that took place in this city right after World War I. Soldiers returning from battle had brought with them the Spanish influenza which certainly must have added to the other health related problems in the early part of the 19th century. Lehane reintroduces us to the political feuds, threats of prohibition, and the Police Strike of 1919. Also, in January of that year, a bizarre, freak accident happened in the North End at the Purity Distilling Company causing the Great Molasses Flood. Somehow a leak occurred causing an incredible amount of molasses to permeate the streets of the North End. Eleven people were killed and 21 injured. Some people say that even to this day, on hot afternoons the aroma of molasses still lingers. It was also a tough year for baseball; Babe Ruth played in Boston and was traded to New York and once said “Thems that write the checks write the rules.” From this trade the “curse of the Bambino” was created and placed upon the Red Sox (until, as we all know, the curse was reversed in 2004!)

Lehane paints a vivid picture of this important period in Boston history with fictional characters while intertwining real historical people like Ruth and others such as Calvin Coolidge, the one time governor of Massachusetts, and Harry Frazee, who was the culprit that traded Ruth. The two main characters in The Given Day are Danny Coughlin, the son of a police chief, and Luther Lawrence, a black man who is hired as a servant in the Coughlin home. Their lives are uniquely different, but they become close friends. This friendship would soon take the unlikely pair into the chaos of the Boston Police strike of 1919.

Like John Grisham, the lawyer turned writer, two of Lehane’s novels have been adapted to the silver screen. Perhaps the most famous, Mystic River, shows the depressing and dark side of the inner city and the crimes that accompany it. The Given Day is currently in production and will be directed by Sam Raimi, the man that brought us Spiderman. I am curious to see how Raimi approaches this film: will it be depressing and dark like Clint Eastwood’s direction in Mystic River or will a glimmer of hope prevail, leaving the audience with a sympathetic understanding of the characters? Who knows. Perhaps we will see a little of both. But the important thing is that the characters must be portrayed the way Lehane describes them, not in the traditional Hollywood fashion.

The Given Day can be purchased at any book retailer in the area.