In July 1950, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — an American couple of Jewish ancestry — were arrested by the FBI for espionage and passing top-secret information to the USSR that helped them build their bomb. However, many believed in their innocence and that the sentence was too harsh; especially for Ethel who was only an accomplice and a mother of two. Protests and demonstrations sparked in Europe and America in their favour, with famous figures of the time voicing their concern such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Einstein and Frida Kahlo.
Pope Pius XII appealed to president Eisenhower to spare the couple which never happened. In March 1951, they became the first American civilians to be executed for the charge of espionage. Twenty years after their execution, American writer E L Doctorow published a book loosely based on the lives of the Rosenberg’s.
The novel is called The Book of Daniel and is mostly narrated by the son Daniel who — along with his younger sister Susan- was a witness to the events that led to the capture, trial and execution of their parents Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. Like the Rosenberg’s, the Isaacson were also of Russian-Jewish ancestry and part of the Young Communist League USA.
Daniel is the narrator of the story and keeps moving from the present to the past (flashbacks) and from the first person to the third person, which confuses the reader at the beginning till he/she gets the hang of it. The childhood of Daniel and Susan was a rough one. They lived in poverty as their father’s job barely made ends meet.
In their flat, his parents’ communist comrades always met and discussed their views and hopes for a better world. It’s also the place where they were arrested by the FBI and jailed. With the help of a family friend who’s a lawyer, the siblings were placed in an orphanage before being adopted by the Lewins, a young couple who were sympathetic with their parents’ case.
However, their childhood trauma takes its toll on them as adults with Suzan’s suicide attempt and Daniel’s life mission of trying to find the truth. As the narration keep moving forwards and backwards, the reader can’t help but empathies with Daniel and feel how the case had affected — and still affecting — him emotionally.
Doctorow’s genius is demonstrated in Daniel’s childhood perspective: the attention to details that only children are capable of and trying to make sense of the adult’s complicated lives and situations. As both children grow the historical background changes, from the McCarthyism of the 50’s to the Hippie movement that marked the 60’s and 70’s.
We witness the rise and fall of different political parties along with famous figures that marked each era such as African American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Although the novel has an open ending, the real story of the Rosenberg children doesn’t. In 2016, Michael and Robert Meeropol —surnamed after their adopted parents- launched a petition campaign calling to president Obama to formally exonerate their mother Ethel for her wrongful conviction and execution but with no luck. Nonetheless, they’re more hopeful that Biden’s administration would consider their petition more favourably.
I read the Arabic version of the book that was translated by Reem Dawood, an Omani translator who’s considered one of the best Arab females in her area. As with all her books, Reem’s translation is seamless and her exceptional mastery of Arabic language increases the joy of reading. The Book of Daniel is a rich reading experience that reflects life as it is: harsh with a gleam of hope. Highly recommended.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja.