[As part of this summer’s beach reading, I had the chance to revisit and engage more deeply with Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (2008), one of the most compelling and effective recent historical novels. In this series, I’ll share a handful of histories that this fiction helps us better remember; share your nominees for great historical fictions, new or old, for a boundary-blurring crowd-sourced weekend post!]
What Lehane’s novel helps us understand about the largely forgotten health crisis.
As I wrote in this March blog post, the 1918 influenza epidemic (or pandemic, more accurately) was by most measures the deadliest worldwide health crisis since the Black Plague (and perhaps of all time). While its international effects far dwarfed its American ones—nearly 100 million people died worldwide, compared to about half a million in the U.S.—the crisis was nonetheless felt deeply and widely in the United States, across three distinct waves in 1918 and 1919. Coming so quickly upon the heels of World War I—or rather, as I highlighted in that post, coinciding with and then extending the deadly effects of that earthshattering, far from great war—the influenza epidemic could not have had worse or more brutal timing. Indeed, it must have felt to many across the globe, and most especially in war-torn and disease-ridden Europe, that the world might well not survive the end of the 1910s.
Dennis Lehane gives the influenza epidemic a prominent role in the first third or so of The Given Day, and in so doing he helps humanize two of those historical aspects. While the disease’s connection to World War I soldiers has never been definitively established, there’s no doubt that wartime camps and travel at least amplified and spread the illness, and that’s where Lehane starts his version of the story: Aidan “Danny” Coughlin, a Boston cop and one of the novel’s two main protagonists, volunteers alongside his partner Steve Coyle to investigate a ship in Boston Harbor that is carrying soldiers returning from the war; it’s revealed that some of the ship’s passengers have come down with a horrific illness, and soon enough the flu has come ashore with those infected soldiers, hitting Steve along with so many other residents. Yet Lehane does more with these soldiers than use them as patient zeroes—in telling exchanges between soldiers and the cops, he also highlights the unique double burden that the soldiers face, having fought in and survived the war (unlike Danny and Steve and others who remained on the home front) and yet now being exposed to and decimated by this fatal illness.
If returning soldiers were ironically among the hardest hit communities, however, the fundamental truth of the influenza epidemic was that it extended to and ravaged every community. Lehane captures this reality with particular effectiveness, creating a Boston world in which every individual and family, at any and every moment, is but one bloody cough away from facing the imminent and likely fatal presence of the flu. As both a police officer and a member of multiple Boston worlds (his family is among the city’s wealthiest but he himself lives in a North End tenement house), Danny is the perfect character to help Lehane trace that deadly presence throughout the city and its different settings and spaces, to offer a window into all the human lives and relationships affected and altered (whether they die or, like Steve, are permanently crippled by the illness) by this horrific virus. To be sure, the influenza epidemic was big enough to merit its own historical novel, and it has produced some—but by making it a part of his broader canvas, Lehane helps capture and humanize the disease and its effects.
Next Given Day connection tomorrow,
PS. Historical fictions you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post, please!
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