The Given Day is by far the best novel I've read that was published in 2008. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in having a keener understanding of human nature and what our priorities should be. Those who aspire to write great fiction will learn a lot by examining the plot, characterizations, story telling, and mixture of history and fiction in the book. I was formerly convinced that E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime was the best historical novel about the early part of the twentieth century in America. Having read The Given Day, I have to move Ragtime down to number two.
I have not read any of Dennis Lehane's other books so I cannot offer comparisons. I stumbled onto this one when a good friend who knows my taste in fiction recommended that I not miss The Given Day. I'm glad she persuaded me.
Normally, I'm not overjoyed to read a 700 page novel, wishing that a good editor had chopped things down to size. The Given Day is chopped down to size . . . it's just the right size for the story it tells.
There's enough material in this book for eight novels, but Mr. Lehane has brilliantly combined his powerful tale into just one double-length one. I admire that accomplishment very much.
To me, the best part of the book was Mr. Lehane's understanding that America in 1916-1919 was a lot like America in 2001-2008. By showing us a mirror of our past, we can see ourselves more clearly in the present:
--We have international terrorists who like to blow things up with plastic explosive. They had anarchists who like to dynamite symbols of authority.
--They had the influenza that killed millions. We have AIDS that kills tens of millions.
--We had runaway inflation until a few months ago that made most people poorer. They had runaway inflation that left most people below the poverty line.
--They had racism that denied opportunity to African-Americans who didn't organization. We have racism that an African-American was able to overcome by organization to become president-elect.
--Their baseball players had no security. Our baseball players who don't have a long-term contract have no security.
--Their civil servants couldn't strike. Our civil servants often cannot strike.
--Their labor movements were weak. Our labor movements are weak.
--Their politicians used public fears for personal advantage. Our politicians have done the same.
--Their immigrants disliked the newer immigrants. Our immigrants dislike the newer immigrants.
And on and on the comparisons go.
The plot is stunning in the way that Mr. Lehane is able to intertwine three characters to make his points about America in those days: Gidge "Babe" Ruth of the Boston Red Sox, Boston policeman Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, and Luther Laurence, a African-American man who would have played professional baseball if he had lived in the latter part of the 20th century or the 21st. The opening sequence involving Ruth and Lawrence is one of the inventive and interesting openings to a historical novel that I have ever read.
What's it all about? More than anything else this is a historical novel about the Boston Police Strike, an event that people still speak about in hushed tones in our fair city. With few nonstriking police and no immediately military help, Boston became a lawless and dangerous town for two days. After that, it was still touch and go in restoring order. You probably wouldn't want to read a novel about that, and Mr. Lehane has brilliantly given you a novel that also shows what it meant to be Irish in Boston, deal with the deadly influenza epidemic, track down anarchists and subversives, break strikes, form labor unions, earn a living under tough conditions, be mistreated by calculating politicians, and search for the meaning of life.
At the ultimate level, The Given Days asks the question of what our priorities should be in life . . . and the answer is to love others and to cherish our families. If there had been a Biblical element in the story, it would have been easy to see this novel as a Christian allegory with Babe Ruth as Barabbas, Danny Coughlin as John the Baptist, and Luther Lawrence as the Apostle Paul. Perhaps those references were intended to be seen by readers outside the context of religious institutions. I leave it to you to decide for yourselves on that point.
But do read this book. You'll be glad you did. It's a surprisingly fast read for a 700 page novel.