If you are a fan of E.L. Doctorow’s work, this novel will not disappoint you, if you pay attention and grasp what you are reading, because it is a compelling and intense story line. I read it straight through, and had difficulty putting it down to even eat. I was overtaken with emotions thruoght the book. The novel takes place beginning with the Cold War, with the secrets, the Leftists, and with the alarmist political tactics used in order to control the country.
The narrator, Daniel Lewin (nee Isaacson), is the son of parents who were convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, parents who were executed in the electric chair. The story begins with him as a graduate student, married and with a son. He is seemingly in the university library preparing his dissertation. His mind begins to wander and he begins to compose a book outlining the harrowing childhood that he and his sister faced as the children of convicted spies, and as children adopted by a loving couple.
He tries to analyze and make sense of his parents’ deaths, and of his life and his sister’s life up to that point in time. While writing his thoughts and feelings, Daniel’s writing often seems to be frenzied, grammatically incorrect, jumping from first person to third person, jumping back and forth in time. This is brilliant on Doctorow’s part, because in reality, if one were to be in this situation, and writing about their experiences, I would think it would be exactly how one would write. As feelings begin to surface, one might talk about their father, as their father in one sentence, and then in order to block out some painful event, start talking about him as “Mr. Isaacson”. One might call their adopted parents by their surname in one sentence, and in the next refer to them as mom and dad, father and mother.
The story is unique, written as events remembered from Daniel’s childhood, including visiting his parents in jail, the ominous Sing-Sing. It is intense and insightful, and sheds light on how the acts of parents can affect the children into adulthood. How children survive, and how their loyalties bounce back and forth from their birth parents to their adopted parents, how the children can’t fathom why their parents would be so stubborn as to not admit some guilt, in order to gain a lesser sentence, how the guilt of the parents is afflicted onto the children. The story details how the emotional electricity runs through their bloodstreams.
This book is modeled after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for treason on June 19, 1953. But, the book is not about the political times, although that is a major factor as to the events that eventually led to the execution of Daniel’s parents, but it is a book about humanity, children caught up in the trauma of the death of their parents, children who jump from family to family, never quite feeling at home, children who must learn to survive in a world of cruel insinuations and insults, children who have surpressed their emotions in order to survive, children searching for the truth of their lives, having no model in order to do so.
Doctorow’s brilliant writing has created a classic novel, and one that should be on the shelves of every household. It is a sad story, and was emotional, and painful to watch Daniel grow, to watch his sister institutionalized, to watch Daniel try to understand his parents’ actions, and for him grow into a 60s radical, yet try not to be like them in his political zeal and zest, living in constant fear that he would turn out like them, behind bars with electric currents shooting through him. With clarity and intensity, Doctorow brings the political past to the forefront, and we realize that things haven’t changed much with the political climate, in the fifty plus years, as we continue to live in the after-affects of September 11th, 2001. The century is different, the decade and year is different, but the alarmist mindsets are still an ever present force.