In 1919, life was as simple as that, at least for those born with skin darker than parchment paper, as is Luther Laurence. Perhaps when men reminisce about “the good ol’ days” and speak of simpler times, it is for this reason: the rules were definitive and unchallenged.
For a while, at least.
In 1919, the world hung in a state of precarious balance. World War I was ending and the returning heroes of the Great War were looking to take their rightful place in the world. This meant taking over jobs held by others, plunging those unfortunate souls who were not soldiers into an uncertain and murky future. But having a job didn’t guarantee an easy life, either. Employment conditions were deplorable and the workers of the world were ready to unite and to fight back. The growing unrest led to a myriad of conflict as the old world faced off against the new. Anti-Communist sentiment raged, as did racial tensions throughout America.
It is on this stage that Lehane sets his ambitious novel, The Given Day. The heroes of the novel are two men who seemingly have nothing in common: Aiden “Danny” Coughlin, an Irish cop from Boston and Luther Laurence, a black man who drifts from Cleveland to Tulsa and then finally across Danny’s path in Boston. Amidst growing labour unrest, racial disparity and under the watch of Danny’s father, police captain Thomas Coughlin and Coughlin Sr.’s best friend, Eddie McKenna, Danny and Luther form an unlikely bond.
At 700 pages, The Given Day is big and ambitious, both in a literal and figurative sense. It is rich with history and it is evident that for Lehane, this was a labour of love. It is meticulously researched, but where the history would bog similar historical fiction novels down, Lehane’s grace with words and love for his characters shines through.
The history, in fact, takes a backseat to the growth of these two men, as they struggle to find their place in a new world order, one they may not always understand. A world in which, when Danny responds in the negative to the question, “Do you know the difference between men and Gods?” he is enlightened to learn that “Gods don’t think they can become men.”
Similar to other Lehane works (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and the upcoming Shutter Island), The Given Day is slated to become a movie. It will be helmed by Sam Raimi and I am already mentally casting Luther Laurence and Danny Coughlin, not to mention the rich cast of supporting characters, which include a number of historical figures, including among them Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, John Hoover (who would later be known as J. Edgar Hoover), Boston Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis, and Babe Ruth, who makes several guest appearances throughout the book. I anticipate the film with some hesitation; its grand ambition may not translate well to a two-hour adaptation, but I am so enamoured with these characters that I would welcome them into my home again at any time. For, as Danny says when another character remarks, “You count coloreds among your equals, Officer Coughlin?”, Danny replies:
“Long as they don’t complain, . . . I don’t either.”