I recently completed 3 books where the setting was as much a character as the protagonists and the antagonists. In fact, the cities operated as both PRO- and ANtagonists, too. Another interesting observation is that these books were 3 totally different genres: historical fiction, non-fiction, and fantasy. (And yes, while not CREATING “characters”, non-fiction authors do EXPOSE heroes and villains.)
I have worked on this entry for over 2 weeks, and as a result, it has grown and grown in length. I’m not sure why I am so attached to this idea of commenting upon the settings of 3 books, but I feel compelled to finish it. (You would think I was turning it in for a grade or something.) Because of the LENGTHS I have gone to in creating these posts, however, I decided to separate them into 3 separate entries.
The 3 books are The Given Day; The Devil in the White City; and Neverwhere. Don’t think because I am writing about these titles that I am recommending them. I always hesitate to suggest books because my taste is all over the place. Sometimes I think it is SO non-discriminating that I have no taste. Now I don’t care for romance novels at all; and I don’t like poorly written works, but I do enjoy a good page-turning best seller even though it may lack the craftsmanship of more gifted authors. Once in a while, I’ll tolerate LANGUAGE if the other words are well crafted – I guess that’s why I hesitate to recommend 2 of these 3 cussed books. Reading about serial killers is not usually my preference either, but one of the 3 stars such a demon. Anyway, please read at your own risk and don’t tell ANYONE that I recommended that you check them out!
The Given Day
The historical fiction novel is The Given Day by Dennis LeHane. (Don’t in any way confuse this author with Tim LaHaye who writes the Left Behind series. No, no, no. Dennis wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, and a bunch more that have been “movie-ized.” If you read excerpts from the link to Amazon, be warned. Profanity is included. )
The Given Day takes place in Boston near the end of World War I or The Great War or The War to End All Wars. Anyway, this incredibly researched novel details that time period so well that whenever I listened to a segment, I felt like my little PT Cruiser changed into a time machine, and I was right there.
Danny Coughlin is the main character, a Boston policeman of Irish decent caught in the thick of a city of immigrants seeking the American dream but finding poverty, discrimination, and violence instead. Boston was dubbed the second Athens, but like a sepulcher, its white and shining exterior disguises a corrupted interior. Danny’s police captain father and the evil Eddie McKenna are part of the corruption, but Danny makes his own way.
Living barely above the poverty line, Danny and his brotherhood of policeman tackle the Spanish Influenza of 1918 that took the lives of 1000 Bostonians. They also faced Italian terrorists and Bolshevik dissidents. The most challenging obstacle, however, was standing up to city government via the policemen strike of 1919.
While readers follow the characters from one page to another, they learn dozens of fascinating details about Boston’s Irish, Italian, and African-American history. Readers are also introduced to more than these ethnic cultures, they see South Boston as it existed for the middle class Irish and the Irish factory workers. Readers walk the streets with the flatfoots of Italian Boston and visit its tenements and markets. LeHane’s researched details uncover a post-war city rocking with tension created by political corruption, cultural prejudice, civil unrest, and industrial abuses. Boston’s charged atmosphere exposed poor leaders’ short-sited choices and courageous citizens’ brave choices that cost them everything but paved a smoother way for others.
If it weren’t for the HARSH language, I’d declare this as the best book I’ve picked up in a long time, but LeHane’s love affair with profanity prevents that endorsement. Nevertheless, his fascinating characters, his meticulous historical research, and his plot development pulled me in. I just couldn’t leave Boston until Danny and Nora left, too.