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Literature: The Given Day

"...Chicago is a new city, gentlemen. The fire wiped it clean of history, of values. And New York is too dense, too sprawling, too crowded with the nonnatives. They can't maintain order, not with what's coming. But Boston... Boston is small and untainted by the new ways. Boston understands the common good, the way of things. To our fair city, gentlemen. Ah, she's a grand old broad."
Capt. Thomas Coughlin

''When Jesus comes a calling, she said,
He's coming 'round the mountain on a train.''
Josh Ritter, "Wings"

The Given Day is a critically acclaimed novel written by Dennis Lehane in 2008. It's set in Boston around the end of World War I, a time of great political and social turbulence. A pointless war. A crappy economy. An angry populace. Workers' unions. Strikes. Corruption. Immigration. Racism. Class warfare. Terrorism. Bombs. Terrorism. Babe Ruth puking. Oh... and that's just how it starts.

The story is told from the perspective of two main characters. The first is Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, an Irish-American patrolman for the Boston Police Department. Danny's the son of Police Captain Thomas Coughlin and a rising star in the department, regularly infiltrating unions and other "subversive" organizations undercover. He is also a member of the Boston Social Club, a union of policemen right pissed over insane work hours, deplorable working conditions, and no raise in 15 years. Danny soon becomes the de facto leader of the B.S.C. and not only butts heads with the government over their rights, but members of his own family as well. As the government refuses to meet the union's demands and the union is left with ever fewer options, it isn't long before a police strike appears inevitable. Meanwhile, Danny's (not so) secretly in love with the family's Irish servant girl Nora, who has a past.

The other main character is Luther Laurence, an African-American amateur baseball player from Ohio who moves to Tulsa, Oklahoma with his pregnant girlfriend Lila. A (not quite) shotgun wedding later, they're married. In spite of Tulsa's very much true reputation as a decent city for blacks at the time (it wasn't called the "Black Wall Street" for nothing), Luther comes under the employ of a local gangster named Deacon Broscious. It isn't long before things go way downhill for him, and he is on the run. His and the other main character's paths finally cross in Boston, where his problems only get even worse.

Considered by some to be Lehane's Magnum Opus, this novel neatly manages to handle issues of terrorism, race, and class warfare without devolving into an Author Tract. Every character, real-life or fictional, is given fair treatment in regards to their perspectives and motives. It's just a matter of what characters the reader finds more sympathetic than the others.

Currently has one sequel, called Live By Night, which follows Danny's youngest brother Joe Coughlin as he rises up the ladder of organized crime in the Prohibition Era.


Contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parent: Thomas Coughlin calls it discipline. Then he strangles his own 12-year-old son Joe for saying "Fuck you!" to his adult son Connor. Granted, Thomas was drunk, but the boy still runs away because of this incident.
  • The Alcoholic: It's a poor, mostly Irish-American city, so most everyone. But especially poor Steve Coyle.
  • Angry Black Man: Mostly subverted. Aside from the black players being understandably pissed when the Red Sox players cheat repeatedly during a random game of ball, almost none of the black characters are openly angry. They just accept being the victims of a racist society as their lot in life. The omnipresent threat of being lynched, shot, or jailed doesn't help.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Captain Thomas Coughlin, hands down. Give him a shotgun and he will single-handedly disperse a whole fucking mob.
    Thomas: Run, you wretched curs! RUN!
  • Berserk Button: Just mention socialism, Communism, anarchy, or any other attempt to remedy class or racial inequalities to Ed Mckenna. Go ahead.
    • Or cuss in Thomas' house, particularly when he's drunk and angry to begin with.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Luther goes home to reunite with his wife and child. Danny, as well as every last one of the striking policemen, are condemned for the riots so thoroughly that not only are they fired, but they will never be hired by any police department in the country ever again. However, all of their demands are adopted, providing better conditions for the next generation of police.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Nora is fired from the Coughlin household's employ and thrown out into the cold winter streets to starve because she left behind an abusive, alcoholic husband and a child that wasn't even hers back in Ireland. Not even Danny objects, even though he already knew!
  • Dysfunction Junction: The whole Coughlin family.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The universe must've welded a permanent "Kick Me" sign onto Luther's back from Day One for all the crap he has to go through before he can reunite with his family.
  • Eye Scream: Amidst the chaos of the rioting, flying glass close to Connor's face renders him blind.
  • Femme Fatale: Theresa could be one.
  • Foregone Conclusion: If you don't already know the true story and don't want to be spoiled, avoid any information regarding the Boston Police Department's early history.
  • Hahvahd Yahd In My Cah: Averted. The common accents are still freshly immigrated, whether Irish, Italian, or Russian.
  • Hope Spot: The B.S.C. is granted an audience with the mayor on Christmas, which Danny attends. It looks like their demands will finally be met. Turns out it's Commissioner Curtis who's meeting with them. The mayor and the media are away for the holidays. Curtis ignores the B.S.C.'s demands, complains about the leaders' occupational tardiness or incompetence, and has them transferred to far-flung departmental positions as a dividing tactic.
  • I Have No Son: Thomas attempts this when Danny marries Nora against the family's wishes. It doesn't last long. After the strike and riots, he tries this again, even crushing a framed picture of Danny underfoot. For fear of Danny besmirching the family name, Thomas won't even say hello to his son while passing him on the street. When Danny tells him he's moving west, however, Thomas acquiesces and says he will write to him.
  • Karma Houdini: The higher up you are, the more you can get away with. Ed Mckenna and Commissioner Curtis especially.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Nora's son back in Ireland. It was one of the reasons she left.
  • Mood Whiplash: A few. One terrifying example occurs during the 1918 flu pandemic. Purely out of paranoia and shoddy medical advice, people began wearing face masks en masse for protection. At a family dinner, Danny and Connor begin laughing hysterically at how utterly ridiculous they all look. Then Connor coughs in between laughs, and his face mask starts turning red from the inside... He gets better.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Pyotr Glaviach and a couple Lettish workingmen give Danny a rather vicious beating, breaking several ribs and rupturing his kidneys. It's only because Luther happens to be passing by at the time and takes him to the nearest hospital (one for coloreds) that he lives.
  • N-Word Privileges: In 1919, everyone had them. No black people protested its use by whites because of its common usage and their powerless position in such interactions to make such a demand. Rope was cheap, after all.
  • Outlaw Couple: Theresa and her husband pretending to be her father are the bomb-throwing, anarchist type.
  • Police Brutality: Practically the entire Boston Police Department, but Ed Mckenna deserves special mention for killing Clayton Tomes because he was black and to prove a point to Luther. "Because you don't run this monkey show. I do." And unless Luther infiltrates the NAACP as he's told, Mckenna claims he will murder the Giddreauxs and "one nigger every week in this city."
  • Politically Correct History: Averted.
  • Precision F-Strike: Joe to his brother Connor. Their father doesn't take it well.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Mayor Peters' reaction to Commissioner Curtis' damage assessment is a blatant example of this: 129 arrests. 5 rioters shot. 562 injured. 94 muggings. 67 assaults-and-battery. 6 rapes. Thomas is particularly horrified by the last one.
    Mayor Peters: Six?
    Commissioner Curtis: Reported, yes.
    Mayor Peters: Your estimate as to the real number?
    Commissioner Curtis: (sigh) Based on uncorroborated reports from the North End and South Boston, I'd place the number in the dozens. Thirty, let's say.
    Mayor Peters: Thirty.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis. The reason he decides to stick it to the B.S.C.'s quite reasonable complaints is payback for all the crap he had to take during his tenure as mayor. The Boston Police Strike and mass riots are the result.
  • Sadistic Choice: The B.S.C.'s given a pretty nasty one by their own government. Continue making demands for fair pay, safe and sanitary working conditions, and more reasonable working hours that their superiors are ignoring again and again or go on strike, leaving the city completely vulnerable to mass rioting, and watching helplessly as the blame is placed squarely on them.
    Nora: You weren't wrong. You did the only thing you could. It's just...
    Danny: Just what?
    Nora: They made it so that the only choice you had left was the one sure to doom you.
    • Most every working occupation at the time was facing this: Workers demanding their rights as human beings and not being listened to, let alone met, or go on strike and lose their jobs.
    • Through abuse of power, Lieutenant Ed Mckenna forces one on Luther after shooting Clayton Tomes. Either give up the NAACP mailing list and stash a dozen loaded guns under the NAACP Boston office floorboards for the police to find in a raid later on, making it look like preparations for an all-out race war, or Mckenna will murder more black people and have the police in Tulsa arrest Luther's wife on an outstanding warrant for theft.
  • The Scapegoat: Mayor Peters, while not wholly blamed for the riots, is still hung out to dry by Governor Coolidge in the aftermath.
    • Every last Boston policeman that went on strike, leaving Boston exposed to mass rioting.
  • Shown Their Work: Lehane's research mentions events that even historical texts tend not to discuss. Almost all historical portrayals condemn Mayor Peters' handling of the Boston Police Strike and resulting riots while praising Governor Coolidge's actions, even crediting it with winning him the Presidency. Very rarely is his incompetence - or political savvy - during said events ever mentioned.
    • The bombing of the Salutation Street police station is also hardly ever mentioned, and the site of the station doesn't even have a marker, which is unusual considering how liberally Boston tends to mark historical sites.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Cynical. Hoo, boy!
  • Took a Level in Badass: Mayor Peters spends most of the book a pathetic excuse for a mayor, letting everyone else make the important decisions while he's on vacation screwing his 14-year-old cousin! Even when he finally owns up to his responsibilities, Governor Coolidge obviously thinks little of him and repeatedly interrupts him during negotiations with Commissioner Curtis to prevent a probable police union strike. As soon as the strike does happen and mass rioting results, Peters tries to organize the cavalry to put the mob down. Oblivious and ignorant to the violence, Coolidge gives orders for the men to go home, repeatedly insisting to Peters that there is no rioting to be put down. Peters, the mayor of Boston, punches Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts, in the face! And fires Curtis! Unfortunately, Coolidge reinstates Curtis and Peters is made the scapegoat once the riots are over.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: No pitchforks, but torches, arson, Molotov cocktails.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Danny and the B.S.C. get a lot of hell for going on strike and just watching while the city is consumed by violence. It's left up to the reader whether they did the right thing or not.
  • Young Future Famous People: At one point a young Justice Department agent by the name of John Hoover appears. Guess which agency he went on to found.


The Girl Who Played GoHistorical Fiction LiteratureThe Go-Between
The Giver QuartetLiterature of the 2000sThe Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

alternative title(s): The Given Day
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