Common Ground

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For most of the past generation, race has been such an intensely emotional issue in the United States that it has been rare to encounter discussions of the subject that are candid or insightful, or that realistically assess the role of race in the decline of modern American cities. In COMMON GROUND, J. Anthony Lukas has succeeded in doing all of this, partly because he writes with unusual sophistication, and partly because his book is so firmly grounded in real human experiences.

Lukas has essentially written the biography of a city, tracing Boston through a decade of turbulence beginning in 1968. The book focuses on three Bostonians: Alice McGoff, a working-class Irish mother living in public housing in the ethnically homogenous neighborhood of Charlestown; Rachel Twymon, a middle-aged black mother living on the fringes of the ghetto but nevertheless having ties to the black middle class; and Colin Diver, a Harvard University Law School graduate who gives up a lucrative position in a law firm to work on pressing social problems for the city of Boston. The book’s chapters expand is concentric circles around these central characters, as the author tries to understand their families, their environment, and their individual perceptions of the racial tensions and conflicts which engulfed Boston during these years. When court-ordered busing arrived in Boston in 1974, the Diver, Twymon, and McGoff children were all affected, and all three families were increasingly caught up in the swirling processes of urban change. By laying before the reader the special world of each of these people and their families, the book gives one a special insight into the broader world they all shared.

Based on more than five hundred interviews and vast historical and social research, COMMON GROUND is one of those rare books that links a sense of individual drama with a solid framework of intellectual analysis. Although Lukas seems far from optimistic about the success of most social reforms and about the future of the city, his book distills the sort of truths that make real progress possible.

Common Ground

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In recent years, a new style of biography has come into fashion, biographies that engage the reader by immersing him in the richly detailed environment of the subject and turn away from their title character for ten or fifteen pages to sketch in anecdotes about an associate, or local history, or a frequented restaurant. This wide-ranging, informal approach is hard to carry off successfully, but it can yield remarkable results.

J. Anthony Lukas’ achievement in Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families is remarkable indeed, for he has sought to apply the techniques of oral history not only to the story of one man but also to the biography of a city. Within this story of a city, he has taken as his theme the enduring problem of racial hostility and discrimination. He has sought to capture both the relentless anonymity of the large city and the fierce ethnicity of some urban neighborhoods. To a surprising degree, he has succeeded in telling readers many things about modern America that they have not heard before.

Lukas begins his story of Boston in April, 1968, the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, by considering the way three different Bostonians reacted. To Colin Diver, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, the killing crystallizes his feeling that America has come only a little way toward resolving the problems facing blacks—despite all the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960’s. Colin shortly thereafter decides that, rather than join a large Washington law firm, he will go to work for the city of Boston to address directly the problems of poverty and opportunity. To Rachel Twymon, a poor black mother of six struggling to keep her small business in the ghetto solvent and who once knew King personally, his death is devastating—and in the midst of her mourning, word comes that her store windows have been smashed by marauding black mobs, striking out in anger at any available target. It is not long before Rachel’s store goes bankrupt and she and her six children are back on welfare. To Alice McGoff, who hears the news as she works at her waitressing job in the heavily Irish, working-class neighborhood of Charlestown in Boston, King’s death is saddening but brings to mind her ambivalent feelings about the civil rights movement. She sympathizes with the efforts of Southern blacks to overcome the obvious, legalized segregation they have faced, but she wonders why King and other black leaders have tried to stir up trouble in the North, where blacks obviously can come and go as they please and certainly do not ride in the back of the bus.

The reader is thus introduced to the three points of Boston’s triangle: Yankees, blacks, and Irish. Lukas, however, has no interest in obvious generalizations; he prefers ironies to categories: Rachel Twymon has black Canadian blood in her veins, the Yankee Diver is actually the son of an immigrant, and the Irish McGoff is a widowed mother rearing her children in public housing. Lukas sets out to make the reader understand the total environment of these people: their past, their neighbors, their aspirations, and their weaknesses. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to sort out the degree to which each embodies some of the larger traits and attitudes of his or her neighborhood and heritage and the degree to which each is a unique individual.

In the process of presenting the context of each family, Lukas manages to present a panorama of Boston itself: its political battles between the Yankee establishments and the increasingly powerful Irish; its newspaper wars; the waning authority of the once-awesome Catholic Church; and the ongoing troubles of Boston’s urban renewal program. Within each larger issue, Lukas introduces memorable ordinary individuals: teachers, social workers, government policymakers, policemen—a range of people engaged in various ways in Boston’s struggle for improvement.

All of this is tied into the separate and evolving stories of the three principal subjects and their families, who are themselves, in turn, caught up in the battle over Boston’s segregation in the public schools. As in most Northern cities, Boston by the...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The Atlantic. CCLVI, September, 1985, p. 108.

Commonweal. CXII, November 1, 1985, p. 616.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 1, 1985, p. 630.

The Nation. CCXL, October 5, 1985, p. 316.

The New Republic. CXCIII, October 14, 1985, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 15, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, September 23, 1985, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 26, 1985, p. 160.

Time. CXXVI, September 23, 1985, p. 79.

The Washington Monthly. XVII, September, 1985, p. 50.