Book Review: “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane

I should have really liked this book. It is set in Boston and Oklahoma during the interwar period. It has a lot about baseball and the end of the dead ball era. It covers the flu pandemic of that era, race relations in Oklahoma, and the police strike and riot in Boston, and anti-terrorism activity of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation. I’d read two Dennis Lehane books before this, one of which I really liked, Mystic River. I didn’t read a description of The Given Day before I picked it up, but if I had I would have been very excited.

So why did it leave me lukewarm? I’m not really sure. I know it comes down to the characters, none of whom I was able to identify with or develop any sympathy for. In particular, I was pretty indifferent about what happened to the family that the story revolved around, in particular the worldly police captain father and idealistic patrolman son. It’s hard to maintain interest in a novel when you don’t care much what happens to the characters.

I’ve stayed away from writing historical fiction myself because I think it is hard to pull off. I think that may have been part of the problem here. Somehow the way the characters spoke or acted didn’t seem consistent with the time period when they lived. I can’t put my finger on any one thing, but I had that feeling.

Another hard thing to do is to include historical characters in a work of fiction. The Given Day had two, Babe Ruth and J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t know how much research Mr. Lehane did on what these two were really like so I don’t know whether he captures them adequately, but somehow I didn’t really enjoy reading about either of them very much.

This is the first in a trilogy following the same family. The next two books are Live by Night and World Gone By. I might pick up the next two if I can find a deal on them, but am not interested in paying full price. The Given Day is set in a very interesting time and place and covers more interesting topics than any other novel I can remember reading, but somehow it turned out mediocre for me.


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