Book/ DVD Review
This review is being used for both book and DVD versions of Doctorow's work as the central points to be made in regard to both works are similar. The film starring Timothy Hutton as Daniel and directed by the acclaimed Sidney Lumet fairly closely hems to Doctorow's story line. Hutton does an excellent job as Daniel. Obviously, such dramatic moments as the attempts to run away from the state authorities by the Rosenberg children after their parents' arrest, the touching visiting scenes by the children in the prison just prior to the executions, the executions and the tragic fate of one of the children (in the book, not real life) get more attention than in the book. But that is cinematic license, and here is not overplayed.
The Book Of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow, Random House, New York, 1971
Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton, directed by Sidney Lumet, DVD release 2008
At first blush the Rosenberg Cold War Soviet espionage case of the 1950's, that ended in the execution of both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by the American state despite a worldwide campaign to save their lives, would not appear to be a natural subject for fictional treatment. Unlike, let us say, Kim Philby and the various Cambridge spies the Rosenbergs' biographies and political profiles do not have the stuff of larger than life drama. Moreover, whatever their efforts were on behalf of the defense of the Soviet Union, as they saw it, the details do not jump out as the makings of a spy thriller. And the well-known historical novelist (`Ragtime", Loon Lake", etc.), E.L. Doctorow, does not go into any of that material. What Doctorow has attempted to mine, and I think within the parameters that he has set himself successfully so, is the effect that the political actions of the Rosenbergs had on their children at the time, on their children's futures (in state custody and later adopted privately) and on the trauma of being the "heirs to an execution" in adulthood. Add to that the biblical implications ("The Book Of Daniel") that Doctorow weaves into his story and that is more than enough material for one novel.
Naturally, the question of the fate of the children of famous (or infamous, as the case may be) is a fair subject for treatment, fictional or otherwise. There is a whole flourishing body of literature concerning this topic. What makes the Rosenberg children distinct (a boy and girl, rather than the real two boys, fictionally named Daniel and Susan Issacson here) is that they were son and daughter to parents who in the eyes of the American state and significant parts of the American population were traitors. Not a good way for young kids to develop their self-esteem. That struggle, placed in the context of the traumas over personal identification which were rift as they grew to adulthood and that helped define the 1960's the time of the action of this story, drive the main themes of the story. The interlocked questions of life in the academy (Daniel is something of a professional graduate student), life on the political streets (Susan has chosen a psychologically dangerous way to cope with her heritage by going full-bore into the left-wing political activity of the period) and coming to grips, successfully or not, with their legacies give the plot substance.
Aside from Doctorow's main themes of exploring the thorny question of the responsibility that parents have for their children, either as parents or as political people, the last part of the book where Daniel, as a coping mechanism if nothing else, begins to get "political" provides some interesting (for the time) theories about what happened in the Rosenberg case. The themes of "good Jew, bad Jew" (as shown by the large cast of Jewish characters in the trial process), the alleged inadequacies of the defense, the scarcity of government evidence (the Rosenbergs were convicted of that old stand-by "conspiracy"), the nature of the early Cold War period and the personal and political limitations of the Rosenbergs themselves get a full workout here. In the end though, as I mentioned in a commentary reviewing Rosenberg granddaughter Ivy Meerpol's film, "Heir To An Execution", concerning the personal characters of the Rosenbergs they did their duty as communists, as they saw it. For that they deserve all honor. And someday some real justice to clear their names.