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THE GIVEN DAY

March 12, 2009

I’m always excited when a well-established writer leaves his comfort zone to try something new and different. It doesn’t always work out, mind you, but the best writers are those willing to take risks, rather than the guys (and gals) who tootle endless variations on the same tune. Dennis Lehane has made a huge name for himself with his contemporary mystery novels, most notably Mystic River and his series of books about the Boston private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Terrific reads, all of them… but with THE GIVEN DAY, Lehane leaves all of that behind for something very different, a historical novel about… well, lwhat is it about? Baseball, race, the great influenza epidemic of 1918, terrorism, socialism, family, and the Boston Police Strike of 1919, for starts… but mostly it’s about its characters. The cast includes Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, and a host of other real life figures, but the Irish prizefighter-cop-undercover-radical Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence, a black baseball player on the lam, dominate the story. Both are wonderfully realized. THE GIVEN DAY is as strong as anything Lehane has done, and that’s saying a lot.

The passage of half a century has given the America of the early 1950s a certain rosy nostalgic glow in popular memory, but there was a lot more going on back then than one would ever dream from watching NICK AT NITE. Those formative years of us Baby Boomers were an era of unrepentent racism and sexism, Cold War paranoia, stifling conformity, and political repression. The shame of the blacklist and the red scare have been well documented in both fact and fiction (in the first volume of my own WILD CARDS series, among many other places)… but the other great hysteria of the era is less well known, unless you grew up a funny book geek, like me. I’m talking about the campaign against comic books, wherein an alliance of blue noses, prudes, headline-hungry politicians, religious ideologues, and medical quacks crippled an entire industry, put hundreds of writers and artists out of work, drove dozens of publishers out of business, and did their best to destroy an original American art form in its infancy. David Hajdu tells the whole story in THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. Vividly written and meticulously researched, Hadju’s account takes us from the birth of the first funnies to the death of EC and the triumph of the censors. It’s a must read for anyone interested in comics, popular culture, or free speech… and make no mistake, it’s a cautionary tale as well. It can happen again.

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