Daniel recalls his parents and their home in the Bronx. His parents were often naked, shameless about their bodies. There was a reason behind everything they did; Daniel always believed he was being trained for something like “The State of Perfection Award.” He recalls how arduous family trips to the beach were; the drive was long, the car crowded, the highway polluted and busy, the beach jammed with people. For his father Paul Isaacson, however, “some things are worth the effort.” Daniel’s parents did not want to be victims; they only wanted to know the truth. Even when they were executed, they did not back down.
Even as a child, Daniel knew Rochelle was the realist and Paul was more naïve; he never thought the execution would actually go forward. He was scared because he was “brash, untested,” and utterly careless of the space in which he lived and interacted with other human beings. He was messy and conspicuous and could not quite come to terms with his position as a father. He was prone to lectures about how to counteract the bad influences of society, such as manipulative advertisements and big corporations. He was affronted by abuses of justice and was well-versed in historical examples of injustice, oppression, and inequality.
Daniel remembers the sound of his father’s voice, which was “nasal, sing-songy, a voice I associated with the expression on his face of complete self-absorption.” Rochelle believed Paul to be childlike; she harbored bitterness against his family because they thought she kept him from finishing college and made him radical. Daniel enjoyed how his irresponsible father was considered a child, for it gave him an ally.
Paul worked as a radio repairman. He was a loyal Marxist-Leninist. Even though he owned his own shop, he was not betraying those ideals because he employed no one and made no profit. Daniel loved visiting him at his shop and watching him work. Paul often listened to the radio while he worked and he would become agitated by right-wing commentators on the air. Paul was continually astonished at the world and outraged at the struggle against oppression; he never meant anyone ill with his ideas and always expected that they would be respected.
Rochelle was full-figured, attractive, energetic, and fanatic about her housekeeping. While she was more pragmatic and realistic than Paul, she was possessed by a “cold, dogmatic rage” and was just as unstable as her husband. Her communism was not theoretical or abstract but near religious in its intensity. The suffering required was part of the experience. Daniel explains that his parents died for something they did not do. Or, perhaps they did. All he can conclude is that “everything was elusive.” He then addresses the reader, wondering if he can “get out” the two people from a poster (his parents) and mentions a grandmother and a black man who used to live in their basement. He wishes to describe these figures from his childhood.
Daniel began a new section of his narrative, “Peekskill,” with a memory from his childhood. He and Susan were getting dressed while adults meet at their house. Among their parents’ friends are dentist Dr. Mindish, whom Daniel hated; teacher Nate Silverstein and his wife; Henry Bergman, a musician; Ben Cohen, a worker in a subway booth and Daniel’s favorite; and the Kantrowitz sisters, who work for the welfare department. A bus arrives to take the adults to a Paul Robeson concert at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill, New York. Robeson was a proud black communist and the gathering was to be a “triumphant affirmation of the right of free assembly, a great moment for the forces of progressivism and civilization.” Daniel asks his mother if he can come along, but Rochelle is against the idea. Paul disagrees, saying it is important for his son to attend, and his mother relents. When the group arrives, they find the American Legion Band playing to protest the concert. Epithets are hurled at the bus. But the afternoon is enjoyed by Daniel and his family. Paul Isaacson is relaxed and happy and Daniel notes how his friends seem to have sincere fondness for his father. Robeson played and sang spirituals and everyone was filled with “ennobling sentiments.”
After the concert, however, tensions flare up. The group boards the bus and right away it becomes clear that something is wrong. Mindish notes that the bus is not going back the way it came, instead straining uphill along a road through the woods. The passengers see four grown men running alongside the bus and throwing things into the road. Suddenly, the bus comes to a stop. Daniel sees blood on the bus driver’s face. Glass shatters all around him. Rochelle forces Daniel’s head down as rocks labeled with cruel words like “kike,” “bastard,” and “Commie” fly into the bus. Daniel hears his mother muttering her own curses as the chaos continues. Daniel fears he will die.
Suddenly, Daniel hears his parents’ friends asking his father what he is doing. Paul answers the outrage cannot be permitted. He calmly hands his eyeglasses to Mindish. For Daniel, this moment is terrifying in its deliberateness. Paul exits the bus and talks to a policeman waiting outside. Paul is quickly set upon by the men outside, who “zeroed in on their target”, breaking his arm. The driver opens the door and Paul tumbles out. Other men and women joined in the fighting outside the bus.
Daniel does not remember how they got home, but he does remember seeing his father lying on the couch, wrapped in bandages with scratches on his face. Daniel cries for the first time since the attack, realizing his father’s beliefs were unreliable and childish. His father had come up against a force that did not accept his innocence and purity. Paul’s actions were to be admirable – if he had not done something, the entire bus may have been turned over – but young Daniel is still confused by the intervention. Though Paul was unable to go back to work in the coming weeks, all Daniel could remember was the fierce revolutionary commitment in his eyes when he took his glasses off.
Daniel then switches to a discussion of Bukharin and his trial in the Soviet Union in 1938 and the tensions between Russian nationalism and its betrayal by the Soviet leadership.
In these pages Daniel introduces his parents to the reader. He is an adult as he writes and recollects, but his perceptions of his parents and their characters, personalities, motivations, etc. are from when he was a child. However, they are no doubt also influenced by recollections and memories from other adults who knew his parents and how they were viewed through the lens of the media and history. Like other children who lost their parents at a young age, Daniel never truly knew or understood them, but unlike other children, his parents are significant cultural and historical figures that have been analyzed and judged by millions of people. They come to life for Daniel through his own eyes and the eyes of others.
Both of his parents are fiercely committed to their Marxist-Leninist ideologies but differ in significant ways. Paul is more childlike and innocent; he knows his beliefs are unpopular and is unafraid of taking a stand in the face of injustice, but he is unable to truly acknowledge the extent of the barbarity when it comes to class struggle in postwar America. He is frequently shocked by the vitriol and violence permeating his country and never actually accepts that he will be executed for adhering to his beliefs.
Rochelle, on the other hand, inherits her mother’s religious fervor and ecstasy of suffering but applies it to her political and social ideology. She is coldly aware of the depths of American depravity and is not surprised by cruelty. She is world-weary and angry, but is much more practical and logical than her husband. Daniel loved and admired his parents, even if they sometimes perplexed him. Several times he mentions an indelible moment - his father’s calm, cool, deliberate action of taking off his glasses before he is attacked by the mob. This is a window into an adult world that Daniel could not yet comprehend. In this one action, Paul shows defiance and certainty in his beliefs. Daniel’s own revolutionary struggles will always be seen in light of his parents’.
Daniel is a young man fixated on memory, for memory is the only way he is connected to his parents. His narrative jumps from the present day to the days before his parents were executed and sometimes to the days after they were executed. He recalls family trips to the beach and the horrible day of the Paul Robeson concert where he witnessed firsthand the searing prejudice and hatred of anyone with leftist, progressive, or other views deemed “un-American.” His parents and, by extension Daniel himself, were attacked for being Jewish and Communist and associating with African Americans. Daniel’s memory project is the only way he can bring his parents to life, although he wonders if he can really do them justice. He tells himself, “You’ve got these two people in the poster, Daniel, now how you going to get them out?” (42-43) His parents are no longer his, but emblems of a movement. The poster is a flat representation and can not provide the full story. Yet, Daniel also knows he will be unable to present a complete picture of his parents’ lives. Daniel struggles with the fact that everything, including “human character” (43) is elusive.
This concern with representing real people they way they truly are, or were, is reflected in Daniel’s wry self-awareness of his narrative. He addresses the reader multiple times and expresses doubt that he can carry out his intentions. In the previous section he worried about how his choice to introduce his wife in flagrante delicto would be interpreted. To some extent, however, Daniel does not care about the opinions of others. He is clear about the people he does not like –Dr. Mindish and Duberstein –and with a young man’s brash cockiness, lets the latter know exactly how he feels. Daniel is a contradictory character who uses literary devices and memory to tell his story. History itself can never truly be defined by one account, and Daniel’s methods are uniquely personal. Daniel is aware that his narration may be faulty and skewed.
Doctorow uses real-life events to shade The Book of Daniel. As previously examined, the Isaacsons themselves are fictionalized versions of the Rosenbergs. In this section, the Issaacsons attend a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, NY. This is a real event that took place in 1949. The events of the concert that was “attended” by the Isaacsons matches those of a second concert Robeson put on with fellow folk musicians Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The first was thwarted by protests. As in The Book of Daniel, the second concert occurred without incident, but fans were attacked afterwards. Guthrie himself protected his family from broken glass inside his own car. Doctorow’s usage of actual events in this fictional story helps to add a layer of authenticity not only to Daniel’s emotions, but lends credibility and comprehensiveness to the novel as a whole.