J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families — August 22, 2010

J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families

Cover of 'Common Ground': a school bus with a big squadron of police standing in front of it
I’ve been horribly remiss in not writing a review of Lukas’s monumental [book: Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families]. To say that it’s a book about Boston’s 1970s-era busing crisis is to be, at some level, accurate, but to miss the immense, teeming landscape that Lukas has painted. [book: Common Ground] is nothing less than a history of race in the United States. It is a landmark. It is among the two or three nonfiction books that you really must read, along with Caro’s [book: Power Broker] and Rhodes’s [book: Making of the Atomic Bomb].

[book: Common Ground] views race through three lenses: the Divers, white pioneers into Boston’s South End; the Twymons, black and living in the South End projects; and the white Irish McGoffs of Charlestown. The Divers are what you might call yuppies, though it is to Lukas’s extreme credit that he would never let a character be reduced to a label. The Divers, in any case, are some of the brave white folks who ventured into the South End when it was no place for white people, to try to build a neighborhood and a community. The Twymons — mother and children — are not destined for a happy life in the projects. The McGoffs are right in the thick of — and active participants in — the most virulent Charlestown racism.

Lukas is sympathetic toward his characters, and has the gift of telling their stories exactly as they themselves would tell them. And like [book: Love in the Time of Cholera], Lukas takes the time, at every moment when it’s necessary, to step back and explain a bit of history if it’s important to his characters. Time and again we pause from the present moment to learn about someone’s poor Irish ancestors, or someone’s slave grandparents. The effect is that we’re not just reading three stories; we’re reading a web of interconnections. Boston, which so often gets tamed into an abbreviated “There was the Boston Tea Party … and then MIT came! … And now we have software. … Let’s walk the Freedom Trail!”, gets rightfully recast as the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that it really is.

Along the way, we meet many, many people. Probably the two strongest characters are Louise Day Hicks, member of the Boston School Committee, daughter of an iconic judge, and symbol of virulent anti-busing racism; and Arthur Garrity, the judge who wrote the momentous decision mandating busing for Boston’s schools. Hicks comes across looking opportunistic, brilliant, and willing to attach herself to the most despicable ideas if they’d advance her career. Garrity stands aloof from the havoc that he arguably created, calmly resisting all efforts to avoid busing. These two wildly different people are beacons in the storm.

A blurb on [book: Common Ground]’s cover by Studs Terkel, that master of ground-level history, says that it tells a truth about “all large American cities.” That is very true, but like most any attempt to describe [book: Common Ground], this vastly understates the scope of its accomplishment. [book: Common Ground] tells the story of race in America as only a book about American cities can. Cities are the crucible where all of America’s problems get worked out — or not. If the problems get solved, they get solved here; if they fail, they fail here. Lukas documents the failure of American racial integration, and the arguably noble experiment that led to that failure.

I can’t emphasize enough, though, that one of the things that makes [book: Common Ground] so powerful is that, while Lukas may have set his sights on the stars, he knew that the only way to reach them was to start down in the dirt. At no point in [book: Common Ground] do you feel as though Lukas is trying to Make A Point. He probably *is* trying to do so, but he’s too disciplined a writer to give in to cheap moralizing or easy grandiosity. What’s grandiose in [book: Common Ground] are its people — each of them down in the shit with everyone else, surviving and maybe thriving as well as they possibly can. If their survival or their failure has any larger meaning, Lukas lets the characters and their history bring out that meaning.

American history has been, in large part, the history of race, the history of America’s original sin, and the history of its attempts to expiate that sin. In [book: Common Ground], Lukas has condensed this history into the interrelated lives of a few Bostonians. In 200 years, [book: Common Ground] will be on the shelf along with a select few other books that mapped out where America came from and where it tried to go.