[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!]
On what Lehane’s novel gets right about a controversial history, and what feels wrong.
If the first third or so of The Given Day is structured around the influenza epidemic, the novel’s culminating section is thoroughly dominated by a far more local but just as significant historical event: the Boston Police Strike of 1919. While Boston’s wasn’t the first police force to employ this extreme negotiation tactic (Lehane’s characters, both pro- and anti-police, refer frequently to earlier events in the U.K, for example), it was the first in the United States, and comprised a hugely controversial watershed moment to be sure. Underpaid, overworked, and generally treated as poorly as it’s possible for a labor community to be treated, the Boston police had a long list of genuine grievances, along with the support of prominent Bostonians from Mayor Andrew Peters to James Storrow. But the strikers also faced powerful adversaries, not only in leaders like Commissioner Edwin Curtis and Governor Calvin Coolidge, but also in the fearful communal narratives of “Bolsheviks” and “anarchists” so prevalent in this era of the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare.
Lehane’s portrayal of the strike is a masterpiece of balancing these different historical realities, narratives, and contexts. Because cop protagonist Danny Coughlin is our main perspective character, and because Danny becomes the VP of the officers’ “Social Club” that would morph into the union and briefly affiliate with the AFL, we are necessarily understanding of and sympathetic to the policemen’s side to these histories. But as in so many classic historical fictions, Lehane also takes the liberty of imagining the perspectives of actual historical figures, including in this section those of Peters, Storrow, Curtis, and Coolidge. In so doing, he rounds out his portrayal of this historical moment and its different moments and meanings quite successfully—and at the same time primes readers for the genuine, multi-faceted chaos that results when the police choose to strike and, for a few nights, the city descends into a series of demonstrations, confrontations, riots, and crimes. We’re never far from Danny (or his co-protagonist Luther Laurence, who by the novel’s midpoint is also living in Boston) in this section, but neither are we limited to his individual take; the strike and the city become vibrant characters in their own right in this climactic set-piece.
There’s one element of that set-piece that doesn’t ring nearly as true, however, and it’s one that features another of the novel’s fictional protagonists: Thomas Coughlin, Danny’s father and a longtime Boston police captain. Disgusted by the crimes taking place during the strike, and learning of a group of scab policemen who have been pinned down by a group of such criminals, Thomas assembles a small force of his own and heads out into the chaotic night to bust heads, an action he performs with relish across multiple action scenes. I don’t doubt that some of Boston’s worst criminals took advantage of the strike and deserved the kind of beating Thomas and company deliver, but this whole thread contradicts one of the novel’s overarching themes: both Danny and Luther come, in their own way, to see violence as something that, even when seemingly justified or directed at deserving targets, becomes its own vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy, one that takes good men and women and whole communities down with it. That’s a particularly potent theme for the post-World War I era, with its Palmer Raids and massacres of African American communities alongside the war’s lingering effects. Yet in this Thomas thread, historical novelist Lehane seems to give way to crime novelist Lehane, and the section and novel are the worse for the shift.
Next Given Day connection tomorrow,
PS. Historical fictions you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post, please!
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