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Off the Shelves: ‘Given Day’ is a powerful story of American history

POSTED: March 25, 2012 7:00 a.m.

Back in 2003, Dennis Lehane, author of "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island," spun a beautiful narrative with an engrossing voice. He captures the era of 1917 with such vividness and atmosphere that you do not feel so much as if you have been transported to another time, but that you have been a part of that time and history.

Readers venture into two very different journeys in "The Given Day."

One is the story of Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, the son of renowned and respected police captain, Thomas Coughlin. A cop himself (although not so respected as his father), Danny is caught in the typhoon of union movements and ruthless radical hunts.

The other tale follows Luther Lawrence, a young black man involved in a violent shooting at a nightclub in Oklahoma. Luther is forced to leave behind his pregnant wife so he can elude the authorities.

Set in Boston, these two men and their families find themselves swept into a series of events that test their beliefs, faith and hearts. Historical figures such as Babe Ruth, John Hoover, W.E.B. DuBois and Calvin Coolidge grace the pages in this creative storytelling about early 20th century America.

What strikes me mainly about "The Given Day" is the language of the book. It's not just the dialogue between the characters, which is truly excellent. There are moments when the characters themselves dissect why and how they say things to one another — the difference between how Luther says "suh" and "sir" reflects his opinion about who he is speaking to. But it's also in the action of the story, in its descriptions and its probing into the minds of the characters.

Some of the most entertaining moments involve getting into the mind of Babe Ruth. While he is not at the center of the plot, he has some unusual perceptions and a strong imagination that affects how he acts in reality.

However, he also occasionally is the most straight-forward thinking about the world around him, in contrast to either Danny or Luther, whose violence-riddled pasts have jaded their views of society.

At one point in the novel, Ruth is thinking to himself: "Everyone (has) the same look on their faces: How did this happen? Babe saw that look on people's faces a lot lately. ... It was like they were all walking through this crazy world, trying to keep pace but knowing they couldn't. So part of them waited for that world to come back up behind them on a second try and just roll right over them."

Maybe that's why this story feels so familiar and in the present, rather than coming across as archaic or old-fashioned.

Lehane makes his characters as identifiable as anyone living today, focusing on the human emotions and beliefs that transcend time and history.

Even though it may be about a period of budding union conflicts, immigrant anarchist revolutions and the Spanish influenza epidemic, it is also about the frustrations of the working man, tense foreign politics and the fears of a society struck by disasters beyond their control.

While thought-provoking and strongly written, "The Given Day" is also charming, humorous, heart-wrenching and surprising. With as much heart, soul and effort that Lehane poured into this novel, it has a life of its own. It is one you will devour to satisfy your narrative hunger.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life


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