Sunday, September 19, 2010

A History Lesson

Reading a couple books lately I thought were unrelated. And yet I'm finding in them a common thread of tyranny.

Book No. 1: Dennis Lehane's The Given Day. It seems Lehane has hit on a very successful formula; a high proportion of his books have been made into successful movies: Gone, Baby, Gone; Mystic River; The Departed; Shutter Island, (and I see now that The Given Day is set for a film adaptation, to be directed by Sam Raimi.)

The Given Day uses the device of several apparently unrelated plotlines which gradually weave together as the story progresses. Set in 1919, the primary story involves Danny Coughlin, a young Boston policeman who aspires to a detective job. Danny's father, Thomas, is a captain on the BPD, a powerful man accustomed to getting his way and to employing a flexible code of ethics as the job requires. When Danny is tasked by his father and an associate with seeking out and squashing Bolshevists and trade unionists and other "subversives," he is forced to look at a very complicated and politically-charged issue from a wider perspective than either side has the luxury to employ. He's a person raised on a kind of propaganda who learns that reality doesn't quite align, even if the propaganda may contain a kernel of truth.

The second thread follows a young black man, Luther Lawrence, who ends up after some turmoil in Boston and befriends Danny. Luther's story reminds us of (or introduces us to) what life was like in America for blacks around the time of WWI. The Civil War ended slavery, but certainly not racism; slavery was replaced by Jim Crow, and Lehane contrasts this class delineation of American society against the status of Irish and Italian immigrants. I suspect it's a rare household today that questions the legitimacy of white Americans of European ancestry, but the time when these things WERE the subject of fierce (and violent) debate is not far behind us.

There's also a relatively minor thread involving the antics of the young slugger Babe Ruth on his rise to fame, playing first with the Boston Red Sox and then with the Yankees. I suspect this thread is intended to to tether the larger story to something familiar to a broader audience (and it lets us spend time with a remarkable character). Ruth has no interaction with Danny Coughlin, but he does play a baseball game against Luther Lawrence early in the book.

Apart from being a good, atmospheric tale, historical fiction like this can serve to make the conditions of another time real to us. With the rise of big business during the industrial revolution, the battle lines between the imperatives of huge companies in their drive to amass unheard-of profits and the needs and desires of the working masses come into clear relief to us. Modern conditions make it easy to forget this struggle--or to never learn of it in the first place. Sure, there may still be struggles today between the management and workers (inevitably, of course, since their desires are in opposition to each other), but today's labor laws and minimum wage and OSHA standards make the titanic struggles of a century ago seem like historic hyperbole. But like all of history, these large movements were lived out by individuals and behind the statistics was a lot of pain and bloodshed and personal tragedy.

The main plot of The Given Day tells of the conditions which led to the the Boston Police strike of 1919. The working conditions of a beat cop at this time strike us today as inhuman: the men (no women were allowed to be cops--hell, they weren't even allowed to vote yet) worked a 12-hour day every day, and were given only one day in 20 off. And they were required to remain in the city on that day off in case their services were needed. They were required to spend two or three nights a week sleeping at their station house, in disgusting beds infested with maggots and bedbugs and years of filth. There were no workplace facilities standards. And for this amount of toil they were paid a wage below the acknowledged poverty level, promised raises being denied them for years even as the cost of living rose precipitously. They were both unable to spend much time with their families and unable to support them on what they were paid despite doing little more with their lives than working. Streetcar operators and dock workers, by example, were paid considerably better (if still modestly).

But because the police were deemed "essential employees," they were prohibited from striking, and any attempt to even organize into a labor union for the purpose of applying collective pressure to improve their conditions was seen as extortion, as an act of subversion. The men in power--the chief of police, the mayor, the governor--were always allied to, or in the thrall of, the new big business concerns, and there was no one to speak for the common person--indeed, speaking for the common folks was "subversive."

And yet despite what now strikes us as a tyrannical situation, there was a kernel of legitimacy in the business moguls' concerns: people wanting to unionize were denigrated as Communists, but this was at a time when Communism--an expression of the ultimate collective assertion of workers' rights--was very much on the boil. These issues existed on a continuum and were vulnerable to fear-based propaganda from both sides; The Given Day helps us to see the difference--not so subtle, really, even if the public had trouble keeping them apart--between what workers like the Boston Police were seeking and the kind of workers' revolution being effected by Lenin in Russia.

The contrast of this struggle plays against the conditions of poor blacks in America as illustrated with the story of Luther Lawrence. I'm stunned to see the depth and breadth of the double standards in American society at this time. Luther is seen in this story as the equal of a white American by absolutely no one, perhaps not even himself. In ways big and small, he is ordered around by every white person he meets, addressed and dealt with in ways for which he would be lynched if he reciprocated. The idea that blacks--or women--were considered as part of the "all men" who were created equal is still a dream of the future. Racism today is certainly still alive and kicking, but the kind of overt, institutionalized racism of a century ago is shocking and repulsive to modern sensibilities. Luther Lawrence was born and lived his whole life on American soil, but the Irish-born cops of the Boston Police Department felt themselves to be the REAL Americans--and they were willing to bang some heads to reinforce the point. The Given Day immerses us richly in this world.

I'm always amazed when a story like this can be crafted from a rich historical event of which I know absolutely nothing. It's not that I expect to know everything--that's a laugh--but there's just an element of surprise to read a detailed story of some big event and then learn that it actually happened in something like the depicted manner. As a refresher on history, The Given Day is valuable; as a story of tumultuous events lived through by individual people, it is well-written and engaging. And in its sweep and details the book is an impressive undertaking. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narrator, Michael Boatman, is a phenom. While identifiable (just barely) in his regular voice as African-American, he is called upon to portray all manner of Irish accents of women and men of a wide range of ages, plus a number of black voices and also unaccented white voices. Plus Italians! And he does all this absolutely brilliantly. The man has found his calling. And so has Dennis Lehane in this ambitious novel. Recommended.

1 comment:

Vancouver Voyeur said...

What a great review. You really capture the essence of the story. You did a much more thorough job than I did. I teach history (among my many jobs) and I was pleased with the historical accuracy placed within a very readable narrative. Lehane's characters seemed more real and more complex than many I have encountered in other works of fiction.