Author: E.L. Doctorow
Publisher: Modern Library
Publishing Date: September 1983
Number of Pages: 303 pages
As Cold War hysteria inflames America, FBI agents knock on the Bronx apartment door of a Communist man and his wife. After a highly controversial trial, the couple go to the electric chair for treason despite worldwide protests. Decades later their son, Daniel, grown to young manhood, tries to make sense of their lives and deaths – and their legacy to him. Like millions of other Americans, he is attempting to reconcile an America based on the highest human ideals with the tragedy of his parents. This is the framework for E.L. Doctorow’s dazzling masterpiece, as he fictionalizes an actual social and political drama to create an intensely moving, searching, and illuminating tale of two decades, two generations, and a troubled legacy of passion and purpose, martyrdom and meaning.
This is another book I came across by doing list challenges. Just like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, it has been listed in numerous list challenges as a must read book. Through an online second-hand bookseller, I was able to avail a copy of this book although I didn’t have any idea as to what it is about. However, the reference to a book in the Bible intrigued me.
The book has been on my unread pile for nearly two until I finally was able to get the time to read it. Before reading, I began to search about it and read some of the reviews. According to Wikipedia, this book is loosely based on the lives, trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, American citizens who were convicted and executed for espionage. Allegedly, they sold US top secret plans to the now defunct USSR.
“Communists have no respect for people, only for positions.” ~ E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel
I am usually drawn to historical works, like Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River. In a literary world teeming with young adult fiction, historical novels are like breaths of fresh air. Unfortunately, history is broad. This makes reading historical novels a challenge because they tend to incorporate different elements of history on different periods. This is an issue I had with The Book of Daniel.
The story narrative opens up in 1967 America where a 25-year old Daniel Lewin is on the way to check on his younger sister, Susan. Daniel and Susan are the children of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, the fictional representation of the Rosenbergs. From this point on, the story flows, the story jumps, and the story shifts. From the present day 1967, the story goes back to when Daniel and Susan were younger. These tidbits appeared in flashbacks throughout the book.
The pièce de résistance in the book is, of course, the Isaacson’s story. Paul and Rochelle were living peacefully with their children until they found themselves in the middle of a slander. When their friend, Dr. Mindish, was caught by the FBI on charges of espionage, Mindish accused them of conspiring with the Russians. Mindish then became a state witness and the Isaacsons were tried for treason but that is after their case created a huge ruckus. It didn’t help that the allegations were made at the height of the Cold War between the US and the defunct USSR.
The widespread publicity sufficed for the Isaacsons to conclude that they will be convicted guilty long before the trials began. A guilty verdict was unsurprisingly handed to them. They tried to appeal but their appeals were for naught and they were eventually executed by electrocution.
While their parents were undergoing trial, Daniel and Susan found themselves in an unfamiliar territory. Without their parents, they were lost. Caught in the crossfire, they were transferred from one guardian to the other. First, they were given to their spinster of an aunt who really didn’t care about them. Then they were transferred to an orphanage before given to foster parents. They finally were adopted by the Lewins.
“Is it so terrible not to keep the matter in my heart, to get the matter out of my heart, to empty my heart of this matter? What is the matter with my heart?” ~ E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel
More than the story itself, what struck me most was how the narrative flowed. The narrative followed no organized structure, thus creating a bit of confusion. The first point of confusion arose from the story’s drastic jump from the present to the past. It is understandable that these are flashbacks. However, I found no cohesion between the flashbacks and the present which made me feel a bit lost at some points of the story.
Another thing that is confusing is the story’s point of view. Within a couple of sentences, the point of view drastically jumps from the first person to the third person to first person again. Lest we forget, the story is being narrated by one person, Daniel, hence, the title “Book of Daniel”. This narrative style made reading the book quite a challenge. Maybe this unconventional story-telling is one of the strengths of the book, although to be honest, I am no fan of it.
The general mood of the book is one of anger. Daniel’s angst and anger characterized the entire narrative. The emotional baggage he is carrying took a toll on his personal life, as shown in his inhumane treatment of his wife. He is very totally unapologetic about his actions and you get the feeling that he is acting like a spoiled brat who is using his parents’ death as an excuse for his abominable actions.
But in his journey of finding out the truth about his parents’ death, he began to mature and grow. He eventually learned to forgive the person who has hurt them the most and towards the end, he became a more mellow individual. Albeit this transformation, I still found it difficult to relate to Daniel. However, I can, to a point, understand his pain, frustration and anger.
But after the confusing narrative, E.L. Doctorow ingeniously played with the emotions by spinning one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in literature. This comes at the electrocution room where the Isaacsons were ceremoniously executed. The scene, put in words, is heart-breaking and one can’t help but pity them, and their children.
From the related literature I’ve read, Doctorow by way of this narrative is positing a different perspective upon which to look into the Rosenberg case. As much as I would want to delve into history to read more literature about the Rosenbergs, I would lay down the premise on what I just read and not based on what it represents, or at least works to represent. As a book, it failed to impress me.
Overall, the book is very difficult to appreciate unless one is into conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Moreover, it weighs on a very controversial subject which makes it difficult to judge. If you are looking to be entertained then you might as well skip this one. However, E.L. Doctorow’s extensive research and insights are laudable. It is just too bad that this is not my cup of tea.
About The Author
Born on January 6, 1931, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was educated at Kenyon College and Columbia University. Before teaching at prominent schools like the University of California at Irvine, Sarah Lawrence, Sarah Lawrence, Yale School of Drama and Princeton University, he was the editor-in-chief of a prominent New York Publishing house. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1973, the recipient of the Arts and Letters award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976, and a director of the American Center of P.E.N. The Book of Daniel (1971) was a National Book Award nominee. His other works include Welcome to Hard Times (1960), Ragtime (1975), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Drinks Before Dinner (1979, a play that was first produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater, and Loon Lake (1980). He had three children and lived in Westchester county. Although a heavy smoker, he lived a full life and passed away last July 21, 2015, at the age of 84.
Very interesting analysis. POV changes are often intentional or due to incompetence as a writer, so I can only imagine that there was some reason behind them, though I hesitate to guess at what. Great review!
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Thank you for your kind words. The POV changes seem intentional. I guess I am just not a fan of such POV changes 🙂
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