If you haven’t read a novel by Dennis Lehane, it’s likely you’ve seen a movie adapted from one of his books: The literary gems Mystic River and Shutter Island are two of the most noteworthy. Lehane also wrote episodes for a pair of acclaimed HBO crime dramas, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. (In Season 3 of The Wire, the show paid homage to Lehane by having Mayor Carcetti’s wife read a paperback copy of Shutter Island during Episode 10.)
While Boardwalk Empire wasn’t based on The Given Day, which was published two years before the series first aired on HBO, they both take place around the time of Prohibition and feature plot and character similarities, as well as fictional characters mixed with historical figures.
Published in 2008, The Given Day is set during 1918 and the main character is Danny Coughlin, a member of the Boston Police Department. Baseball plays a key role in the book after Babe Ruth, then with the Boston Red Sox, has a chance encounter with the other main character, Luther Laurence, the star of a local Ohio Negro League team.
Lehane does an excellent job examining Danny’s difficult relationship with his family — both parents are Irish immigrants and his father is a veteran police captain. He looks deeply into Danny and Luther’s friendship, as well as the daily challenges faced by Laurence. And Lehane meticulously chronicles Coughlin’s role as a beat patrolman and budding union organizer during a period that includes a police station bombing, a flu epidemic and rising ethnic, racial and political tensions.
But my favorite scenes are the ones involving Ruth. Lehane does an incredible job going inside the jumbled mind of the 23-year-old unworldly truant/budding superstar known as Babe, which he prefers or Gidge, which he hates. In several scenes, Ruth unwittingly becomes involved in the course of history, but he would rather play baseball, drink and chase women — and not necessarily in that order. (Similar to Boardwalk Empire, The Given Day foreshadows the Black Sox Scandal that involved the Chicago White Sox throwing/intentionally losing the 1919 World Series.)
In the fabulous prologue, The Babe is on a train carrying both the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox back to Boston for Games 4-7 of the 1918 World Series. The train breaks down during a stop in Columbus, Ohio and while killing time, Ruth stumbles upon a baseball game between local teams who happen to be black. A year before the birth of Jackie Robinson, Ruth — a notoriously bad student — learns a very important life lesson.
When it comes to historical fiction, Lehane takes a Ruthian swing with The Given Day. And he connects.