Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families

J. Anthony Lukas

Book cover

This is a masterpiece of a book. It is about Boston in the 1970s, though if it had been described to me only as such I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked it up. Instead, it was lent to me by a good friend who recommended it highly.

Reading “Common Ground” felt a lot like watching “The Wire,” and I can’t help but wonder whether David Simon read Lukas’ book and was influenced by it. CG is not as focused on crime per se as is The Wire, but it is a similar (and similarly successful) attempt to tell the story of the city through telling the stories of the characters. Lukas does a good job of portraying the Divers, the Twymons, and the McGoffs as relatable and interesting characters, while also subtly showing the ways in which each is acted upon by the larger forces of race, class, politics, the justice system, the educational system, etc.

I think Lukas intends to tell the story as a classical tragedy in which the city is in some sense the protagonist, and the imposition of busing the tragic flaw or mistake. That’s not to say that it’s a polemical book; one of the things that makes it so tragic is that busing was so well-intentioned and it’s not at all clear if another course of action would have been any better. But by the end of the book, bad things that happen to the characters seem basically inevitable.

Of course, the flaw went even deeper than busing. Lukas writes the backstories of the characters as far back as possible, often into the 1800s and 1700s. So much of the tension in Boston in the 20th century seems to trace back ultimately to the mass migrations of Irish and of freed slaves. The punishments for the crimes of England and the South seem to be visited upon Boston, for the transgression of opening itself to the refugees.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars