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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,114 words.)