I would categorize E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel in the historical fiction genre. Typically, when we think of Communism and the atomic bomb, we think of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – the couple executed for committing espionage and passing information about the A-bomb to the Soviet Union. The Book of Daniel is not about the Rosenbergs, but a couple whose situation was eerily similar: the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. However, the novel is written from the perspective of the Isaacsons’ son Daniel. Daniel describes what life was like as a child of the Isaacson household, his parents’ political statements and meetings, and the horrors he experienced while watching his parents flounder under the watchful eye of the entire nation. Daniel also gives the reader glimpses into his current life while writing the memoir as a Columbia graduate student in the 1960s. He portrays through graphic imagery how the execution of his parents affected his and his sister’s entire adult lives.
Doctorow’s novel paints a brilliant picture of scattered images from Daniel’s memory. From the horrific image of his parents convulsing on the electric chair to Daniel’s violent abuse and manipulation of his wife, the incredible imagery in Daniel is not for the faint of heart. In addition, Doctorow does not writes in chronological order. Scenes from Daniel’s childhood are juxtaposed with his current life story as a married adult. There is no evident pattern with the timeline of the story, which can make the events difficult to follow, but Doctorow’s style of relating scenes from his parents’ trial to his time spent writing his dissertation creates a much more immersive and interesting storyline. Doctorow also switches the narration between first and third person, which creates an unreliable narrator and a confusing switch between intimacy and separation with the Daniel.
While The Book of Daniel is in no way a work of nonfiction, there are several very real details that mirror the events of the Rosenberg case, which creates in the reader an intense illusion of reality. In addition, the effects Daniel portrays in his own language and his descriptions of his sister’s slow decline into insanity are absolutely understandable for someone who went through such an appalling childhood.
E. L. Doctorow has conceived an incredible story in The Book of Daniel in which a troubled young adult tells the events leading up to and including the execution of his beloved parents – events that will follow him for the rest of his life. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in history and historical fiction.