It took years for me to finally read my first Dennis Lehane novel a few weeks back. Last week, I followed up with The Given Day, Lehan’s widely acclaimed historical novel, a break from the mystery/detective stories he’d written before. At over seven hundred pages, it’s a time investment— one I’m glad I made.
The story focuses on the events leading up to the Boston Police Strike of 1919. Lehane weaves the topics of race, anarchy, graft and paranoia that was Boston in the early twentieth century, with chapters featuring Babe Ruth, the biggest thing in baseball at the time, before he was traded from The Red Sox to the Yankees. It’s a gritty novel and pulls you into the streets of the city, the rough tenements of the North End, sweeping bay views of South Boston, the Brahmin enclaves of Beacon Hill, the jagged environs of Scollay Square. Most of all, it sucks the reader into the consummate pride, and the desperate unfairness with which the patrolmen were treated. These men made less money than dockworkers and janitors as they put their lives on the line —working something like twenty days on with one day off, for under minimum wage, with no overtime, in station houses filled with rats and vermin. Oh yeah. And if they ripped their uniform in the line of duty, whatever. They paid for their uniforms themselves.
No spoiler here. You’ll have to read the novel or your history books to find out what happens. But perhaps this story resonated with me all the more because as it happened, two firefighters lost their lives in Boston while I was reading it, reminding me that dedicated public servants put their lives on the line for us every day. In my mind, there could never be enough pay for the risks they take.