We've all heard the bad news: Americans don't know their own history.
Surveys show shocking numbers of us think we won the Vietnam War, fought the Russians in World War II and started the Revolutionary War over a tax on tea.
And it's not getting any better. Our attention spans are so short we hardly remember the last election, much less the last century.
Here's one way to get people excited about the nation's past: Get Dennis Lehane to write the history books.
Okay, Lehane's new book, The Given Day, isn't a history text. It's a novel, and a rip-roaring one, packed with vivid characters and suspenseful action. But it's a historical novel, set in Boston (Lehane's hometown) just after World War I, a meticulously researched tale that in the hands of this master storyteller jumps right off the page and hollers.
Lehane, who will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 25, lives in the Tampa Bay area part of the year and is co-founder of the Writers in Paradise program at Eckerd College, where he earned a degree in creative writing.
The Given Day is a departure for Lehane, who hit it big writing dark and beautifully crafted crime novels, like Mystic River (made into an Oscar-winning film directed by Clint Eastwood), Gone Baby Gone (an Oscar-nominated film by Ben Affleck) and Shutter Island. (The film of the last one, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, hits screens next year, and word is a movie based on the new book is already in development.)
The Given Day has plenty of darkness and its share of mysteries, but its structure isn't built upon the solution to a crime. Instead, Lehane interweaves the lives of two young men whose paths converge in the months leading up to the Boston police strike of 1919, an event that led to several days of widespread rioting and looting, nine deaths and hundreds of injuries; state and federal troops were called in to get the city under control.
That time and place give Lehane scope to tell a uniquely American story, one grounded in our history yet ringing with issues that concern us still, almost a century later: race, immigration, terrorism, economic instability, political corruption and the corrosive gap between the haves and have-nots.
The Boston native who is one of the book's protagonists is Danny Coughlin, the eldest son of police Capt. Thomas Coughlin. Thomas is an Irish immigrant who arrived as a stowaway but made more than good, becoming a powerful — and cynical — figure.
Danny follows his father into the police force, but he's got an independent streak. To his family's mystification, he chooses to live among the Italian immigrants on the North End. He also chooses to fall in love with — then loses — Nora O'Shea, a young woman with an enigmatic past who works for the Coughlins.
The novel's other protagonist is Luther Laurence, a black man whose life begins in Ohio with a lot of promise — he's a baseball player talented enough to dazzle Babe Ruth in a pickup game.
Luther's life takes a wrong turn on the highway of love as well. He moves with his girlfriend, Lila, to the thriving Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., where both blacks and whites are benefiting from the first oil boom. They marry, but Luther, lured by easy money, starts working for a gangster — a career path that ends abruptly in a night club shootout. Luther flees to Boston, where he gets a job as a houseman for the Coughlin family, leading to his friendship with Danny, an unusual one in those segregated times.
Both men become involved with the roots of major social movements of the 20th century. Luther works for the fledgling NAACP, a cause he adopts with little hesitation.
Danny's social consciousness evolves more slowly. He's given a special undercover assignment to infiltrate political groups — socialists, communists, anarchists — suspected of plotting major terror attacks.
While he's doing that, he's also becoming more involved with the Boston Social Club, a nascent police union. The labor movement was burgeoning in the years after World War I — in 1919, there were more than 2,000 strikes around the country — even though it was highly controversial.
The strike by the Boston police provides the harrowing climax of The Given Day, and Lehane makes the reasons for it starkly clear. The typical work week for officers was about 80 hours; they did 10- to 12-hour shifts for 15 to 20 days, then got one day off. They had to buy their own uniforms, weapons and equipment — from a wage that started at 25 cents an hour.
But Lehane doesn't convey this with lists of statistics. He takes us into the world of a century ago and makes the history live. We've all read about the flu pandemic of 1918 and the more than 20-million people it killed. Lehane writes movingly about the officers whose duty it was to sort the living from the dead (at risk of their own infection), and describes a horrific scene Danny and his partners discover: a man who has killed his wife and children to end their suffering from the disease, then thrust a knife into his own chest. "Nothing else I could do, fellas."
Lehane gracefully laces the novel with historical figures like Eugene O'Neill, John Reed and Calvin Coolidge. A young and ambitious John Hoover (later known as J. Edgar) "stared back at Danny with the coal-blue clarity of the unexamined conscience." Babe Ruth is a recurring character, and his presence lets Lehane tip a nod to the bay area when Ruth hits his record exhibition game homer — 579 feet — at Plant Field, at what's now the University of Tampa campus.
All this history never feels like a lesson, though. Lehane deftly makes it part of the compelling personal stories of Danny and Luther, their struggles to discover their ideals, to reunite with the women they love, and simply to survive in an America not so different from our own.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.