The Book of Daniel ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Book of Daniel book cover 1
The Book of Daniel
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

The Isaacsons are a middle-class Jewish family living in a rented flat in the Bronx in the 1950s. Paul Isaacson owns a small radio repair shop. Rochelle Isaacson is a housewife. She is a devoted mother, taking care of her and Paul’s two young children, Daniel and Susan. While the Isaacsons might seem, outwardly, to be a “normal” American family, there’s something a little funny about them. They are Communists. Their political views are Radical with a capital R. They attend Communist meetings and are heavily involved in Party activities. Communists are not popular in post-WWII America. There is a movement afoot in the 1950s to remove all Communist influence from American life.

Through an associate they believe is a friend, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson become implicated in spying or “espionage.” Before they know what’s happening, they are accused of selling American nuclear secrets to the Soviets. They are jailed and not allowed bail, even though there is no hard evidence against them. The case against them is all circumstantial.

From the beginning, things do not look good for the Isaacsons. The political climate is such that nobody is willing to give American Communists a break, or to give them the benefit of the doubt. After a lengthy trial, they are, of course, found guilty. The penalty for what they are supposed to have done is death by electrocution.

So, what happens to Daniel, age eleven, and Susan, age six, while their parents are in all this trouble? They live for a while with a put-upon old aunt, and when that living arrangement doesn’t work out very well, they end up a shelter, what used to be called an “orphanage.” What Daniel and Susan want more than anything is to be restored to their family life with their parents, but we know that’s not going to happen.

The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow is not always an easy book to read. The politics aside, you can easily sympathize with Paul and Rochelle Isaacson and their two children. When it comes to Paul and Rochelle’s guilt or innocence, the novel doesn’t take sides. We never know for sure if they were really guilty or if they were just “set up” to protect somebody else.

The story is told, mostly in Daniel’s first-person voice, in two different time frames: in the 1950s, when the story is actually unfolding, and in the 1970s, when Daniel is a disaffected hippie with a teenage wife, and Susan is a suicidal mental patient. It’s a story that can’t have a happy ending.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

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