Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reading Rainbow: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

This looks to be a very Lehane-y week here at Inconsiderate Prick. With a 50-page head start, I read the last 320 pages of Shutter Island yesterday for which you can be expecting an entry tomorrow. Obviously, there is also a little movie by the same name that will be coming out Friday. I fully anticipate taking it in on Friday, if not sooner. And then there is what, to this point, can only be deemed his magnum opus--The Given Day.

Set against the backdrop of Boston as The Great War has just come to an end, America is in the throes of drastic change. It kicks off with a 30-page prologue following Babe Ruth between World Series games as he de-boards a stopped Chicago-to-Boston train and joins in on an all-black game. As the game goes on, the white players from the train mosey on toward the field, inevitably corrupting what had initially been an innocent game, cheating and eventually getting Ruth to side with them. Ruth's guilt from that day follows him throughout the book, as he pops up intermittently at times of transition.

The scope of this book doesn't stop at the mere inclusion of Babe Ruth at the time of he begins to capture the imagination of the American public and revolutionizes its pastime. Within its pages, Lehane ties in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the Boston Police Strike of 1919, anarchist plots of terrorism, union battles, a young J. Edgar Hoover, then-Governor Calvin Coolidge, and the racial tension running through much of Lehane's work. What is perhaps most impressive is not necessarily the scope of what Lehane has chosen to take on but the deftness with which he accomplishes the task. There is a lot going on here, as there was a lot going on in Boston at the time, and the ease with which Lehane takes the reader along for the dual-protagonist ride is admirable.

As always, Lehane's prose flows effortlessly. Despite its 700+ pages, the book's length never feels daunting. Instead, as the book draws to its close, you can't help but wish there was more, as you've grown to care for these characters. The turmoil Luther and Danny endure and the bond they form endears them to you. Their struggles as representatives of the common man against the imposing oppositional forces cannot help but draw the reader's sympathy. Their attempts to live by a moral code while embattled against the morally bankrupt when there is an easier path is intensely compelling.

In short, Dennis Lehane has crafted a 700 page piece of historical fiction that flies by and actually leaves you wanting more, which is no small feat. The Given Day is an effortless read while not at all light. It deals with racism, morality, class struggles, terrorism, pandemics, murder, and riots yet never leaves you weary.

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