December 2011 | Nate Pedersen

The Books of Boardwalk Empire (Season 2)

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about the books featured in the first season of HBO's much-lauded period drama, Boardwalk Empire.  The second season came to a shocking end just over a week ago.  Much of the blogosphere is debating the controversial ending to the season, but I thought over here at Fine Books we'd take a look at what books were featured prominently this year.  Once again, HBO deserves props for its close attention to period detail - the early 1920s come vividly to life in the series and the same goes for the featured books.

The first book to feature prominently in an episode was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  In episode two, Chalky White, a gangster and prominent member of the African-American community in Atlantic City, is being held in jail.  His wife brings him a copy of David Cooperfield to read while he's waiting to be released.  Chalky, however, is largely illiterate, a fact he has managed to keep hidden from his wife.  When asked by his fellow inmates what book he has, Chalky answers Tom Sawyer, unsure of the book's actual title.  An inmate unfamiliar with Chalky's prestige knocks the book out of his hand, taunting him for being too cultured.  Chalky calmly calls for his fellow inmates, all of whom owe him a favor or two, to beat the fellow up.  They quickly and brutally do so, then hand the book, now slightly bloodied, back to Chalky.  Chalky asks if any of them "know their letters," then gives the book to one of them so he can read it out loud to the other inmates.  His act is a confession of his own ignorance.

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I couldn't tell what edition of David Copperfield was featured in the episode, but the cover was decorative white cloth stamped in green and red.  It looked like a late 19th or early 20th century binding, and was certainly period appropriate for the show, which is set in 1920.  It makes you wonder where the bloodstains came from on books in your collection, if you have any present.

The second book featured prominently in an episode was more obscure: The Girl, a Horse and a Dog by Francis Lynde.  The book, published in 1920, was hot off the presses when Margaret Schroeder gives the book as a present to her estranged younger sister, Aylesh, a recent Irish immigrant in New York City in episode seven.  Aylesh had a requested a book with a horse in it and Lynde's book certainly delivers on that front.  I couldn't find much information about Francis Lynde online - a number of his books are freely available to download from Project Gutenberg, but the author's biography remains something of a mystery.  (If you know anything about Lynde, please add it to the comments section below). This was an obscure choice from the show's producers who must've either already had the book to hand or gone on a serious hunt for it.  There are no copies available from abebooks, excepting modern print-on-demand copies.

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So, once again, Boardwalk Empire outdid itself with its attention to period detail and this reviewer certainly appreciated the inclusion of these early 20th century books.  David Copperfield in particular was used as an important prop in a powerful scene.  Boardwalk Empire was renewed for another season, so I look forward to seeing what books are featured next year.