The 700 pages of this book should NOT daunt you. You will get hooked on this historical fiction in no time and quite honestly, realizing I only had a couple of chapters left before the end of the book, I did not want to read them because I didn’t want the book to end. No wonder Dennis Lehane has had quite a few books made into well-known movies (“The Shutter Island”, “The Mystic River”, “Gone Baby Gone”, “Million Dollar Baby”), with his easy writing, his insight into different characters, his details in history and reality, and his captivating story line. I’m thinking of buying a couple more books from him and am looking forward to devouring them, much like this one.
As to this one, the story revolves around the First World War, but it has less to do with the war (since it is set in the US, it is quite understandable) and more with the changes the city of Boston (and I guess the country as a whole) is going through with workers and unions.
This book deals with divisions on various levels, and in doing so, strips me of the tiniest and feeblest shred of faith I had in people. Of course, unexpected connections and signs of love are woven in the midst of such oblivion, but all they manage to do is cajole us in a place where we know the “sky will remain green” just because the ones in power said so, and there’s nothing much we can do under “the green sky”.
The first division is, without much surprise, among races and the multiple nationalities of first and second generation immigrants. The usual Black vs. White, but also the perhaps lesser known, or at least to me, Italian vs. Irish, Russian vs. ‘Americans’ and so forth. One thing that especially struck me as I progressed throughout this book is how much overrated and overused the term ‘Melting Pot’ has been used for the US. Maybe the reason people have clung so much onto it is because they all knew deep inside that it was just an illusion, one they had to hold on to make the tiniest sense out of what they were actually going through. True, each society has its divisions, but none, I think, matches the depth, intricacies, hate and lack of common sense as the ones the US has had to go through, and in such a relatively short period of time. Some may see it as a strength, a unique trait of the American society, one that still manages, today as it was more than a century ago, to draw thousands and millions of people to this land from all corners of the world. But how much time, struggle, indifference and pain each individual has had to go through to give the simple illusion of having achieved ‘diversity’ as they put it? It’s almost not worth it.
The second division, and the one that I think was rather ‘more important’ or at least ‘more interesting’ (for a lack of a better word) than the first one, just because it was a new topic I was not familiar with, is the one between the ‘workers’ and what we would now call the ‘1%’. The author states in the foreword or somewhere else that the beginning of the 20th century was when the union movement was slowly emerging, as Communism made its way to the ‘new world’, with the arrival of exiled ‘Bolchies’ as some of the characters derogatorily address them. The struggle that the Boston Police Department goes through, especially the one Danny Coughlin, one of the main characters, goes through, is fascinating, but also frustrating. Especially because I realize that 100 years later, ‘workers’ as we know have so much more progress they want to achieve, but can’t because of the numerous barriers to their simple cause. People don’t realize that we’re all ‘workers’ one way or the other; the ‘other class’ is called ‘1%’ for a reason. Unless you’re born within that class, it’s likely that you will be treated according to the ‘labor’ you provide, no matter how ‘communist’ that word sounds. Your rights will be violated and trod upon if you don’t take matters in your hands.
Fortunately, the book ends on a rather ‘happy’ note, meaning that none of the main characters is killed or ends up in misery. But the ‘happy note’ is on a personal level, and from the bigger picture of the ‘workers’ cause’, their strike and union, I have to say, it’s an epic failure. The bigger purpose is never quite achieved. However, that is not to say that the novel is not enjoyable or is utterly depressing. Going through the changes and inner debates Danny faces from his duty and mission as a police officer hunting down the ‘terrorists and anarchists’, to his realization of the unfairness his fellow officers have to endure and the ‘true cause’ of these ‘terrorists’; the journey is both informative and emotional.
And on this note, a quote from Danny, witnessing the inhumane people always seem to perpetuate when they’re in mass, and the forever-remaining mystery of their behavior that lacks common sense on every level.
“This terrible smallness of men was bigger than him, bigger than anything“.