The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel Summary and Analysis of Start of Book Two: Halloween – “The Isaacsons are arrested for conspiring to give the secret of television to the Soviet Union…”


Daniel opens Book Two in the late summer of 1967, a few months after Susan’s suicide attempt on Memorial Day. He and Phyllis are trying to repair the mess in their relationship that Daniel has caused - they both seem to regard him as the problem that needs to be fixed. Phyllis often walks him to Columbia where he sits in the library, trying to work on his dissertation.

Daniel recalls a day in 1949 or 1950. He and his sister and mother were returning home from shopping. Suddenly Rochelle started walking very fast, crying out that it had finally happened. A crowd was gathered in front of Isaacson Radio. Daniel ruminated on the gentrification of the neighborhood that was just beginning around that time. He was not doing well in school that year. His class was often interrupted by nuclear bomb drills that had the children ducking and covering.

When Daniel and his mother and sister reached his father’s shop, the first thing they noticed was the television set newly displayed in the window. Rochelle learned from Paul that Mindish had been arrested by the FBI that morning. They did not know what he had done but both of them were trying to act normal and cautious. Daniel reflected that he never liked Mindish and was pleased that if anyone had to be arrested, it was him. Daniel thought he was fat and sneaky and always seemed to be staring at Rochelle’s breasts.

The next morning two young, neatly-dressed FBI agents knocked on the Isaacson’s door. Their names were Tom Davis and John Bradley. They explained that they wanted to ask Paul and Rochelle questions because they were friends of Mindish and perhaps their information could help him. After Paul refused to answer any questions unless in a court of law, Davis and Bradley left and sat outside in their car for some time. The next day Paul felt that they had searched his store when he was not there. Rochelle did not agree, and Daniel commented that she “is into the mental process which in the next three years will harden into a fortitude many people will find repugnant.”

The FBI men were inside or outside the house nearly every day when Daniel came home from school. The family’s lives became more intensified, “the edges of our existence seemed to be crumbling.” It seemed like a giant mechanical eye like the telescope at the Hayden Planetarium had fixed itself on their family. Daniel again remembers the woman hit by the car and knew it would soon be his family covered in blood.

And it was. Later they knew that the FBI gave them four weeks for some reason –stupidity? Inefficiency? – but they did not pick up on it and they did not leave. The phone eventually stopped ringing and Paul used all the change he could amass to make phone calls from payphones in the neighborhood. Around the world, people were being arrested. Paul read many newspapers every day and read aloud stories of the crackdown on free speech and leftist ideas and the proliferation of loyalty oaths. Daniel began having nightmares where his parents left him and Susan in the middle of the night. He never thought about them going to jail but to some secret place. He felt like there was a “coming to stay of the worst possible expectations.”

One morning there was a knock on the door. This was a significant moment - “The American Left is in this great moment artfully reduced to the shabby conspiracies of a couple named Paul and Rochelle Isaacson.” The two FBI agents were standing there. In the past few weeks, they had almost become acquaintances. They always alluded to the “higher-ups” putting pressure on them to get answers, and they were somewhat kind and humorous in their frequent visits. That early morning, however, his mother knew something was different. It was six-thirty AM and freezing outside. She let the two men in, but many other agents followed them. The dozen FBI men crowded into the house as Paul was presented with his arrest warrant. The agents began rummaging through Rochelle’s house, the house that she so fastidiously kept clean and organized. Daniel ran to his own room where the agents had scattered his possessions as well.

People in the neighborhood were gathering and watching. The agents confiscated radios, newspaper, books, and an English translation of a Russian primer that Daniel was given to read when he was old enough. He remembered that he felt freezing and fearful. His father was dressed in his best suit but was unshaven and his face was filled with “this awful sadness of trying to remember” something he had forgotten. Susan was crying and hysterical and Daniel became feverish and violent; he kicked and hit and screamed at the FBI agents but he was shoved aside. And then suddenly, it was over. His father was gone and everything was quiet.


The Isaacsons’ lives change irrevocably in this section. Selig Mindish has been taken by the FBI, two young FBI agents begin frequenting the Isaacson home, and eventually Paul is arrested. Daniel notes that during the visitations by the FBI (during this time evidence was being proffered by Mindish that would lead to their arrest) their lives began to become intensified and “the edges of our existence seem to be crumbling” (107). A giant eye is fixed on the Isaacson household and the scrutiny and pressure are almost unbearable. For Rochelle, rage passes and turns into fortitude and anxiety for her husband. Daniel notes that his mother’s way of dealing with the next three years was very off-putting for observers, as her stolidity and reserve did not suggest remorse or emotion.

The Book of Daniel and Ragtime are two of Doctorow’s most popular and compelling works because they are centered upon real historical figures but utilize a fictional context in which to allow the figures to breathe, speak, and think. The Book of Daniel is of course based upon the real-life story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by electric chair in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage during a time of war. The Rosenbergs were the first Americans executed for espionage. On the 50th anniversary of the case in 2003, a New York Times editorial wrote, "The Rosenbergs’ case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria."

Interest in the Rosenberg case and reevaluations of the trial and conviction have not abated. In 1975, the two sons of the Rosenbergs, who, like the fictional Daniel and Susan, were living with adopted parents under their name, published an autobiographical account. The FBI released thousands of documents from the case when forced by the Freedom of Information Act in the mid-1970s. Other writers debated the guilt or innocence of the couple. Sympathetic biographies were published, as well as other works of fiction, such as Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason. Scholars working in the Cultural Studies discipline have addressed the case as well. Clearly, Doctorow is not the only intellectual and American interested in what the Rosenbergs’ execution suggests about mid-century America.

In his book, Doctorow changed a few of the major details of the story; Mindish, the family friend, takes the role of David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother who supplied the FBI with information, and the Isaacsons have a son and daughter child whereas the Rosenbergs had two boys. Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s influential essay on Doctorow’s “technology of narrative” wrote that “in establishing literature’s ancient double function of pleasing and giving counsel, it implicitly validates his own project of treating historical fact in fictional terms…this project appears as a means of reclaiming and of realizing the full potentiality of fiction.”

Doctorow’s text is not just a fictional account of the Rosenbergs’ lives and deaths; it is also concerned with how a storyteller tries to turn a real event into a narrated one. Daniel has to take events that actually happened to him and turn them into a cogent narrative. Immediately apparent is his understanding that this cannot be done using traditional modes of sequential narration. The amalgamation of personal history, dissertation, letters, biblical verses, essay, etc. “betoken the absence of authority, or the resistance of instituted authority to Daniel’s narrative...Doctorow and his narrator are trying to discover what kind of narrative is possible when one stands not only outside but in opposition to the regime.” John Parks echoes Harpham’s essay with his own insight that Doctorow’s fiction “seeks to disclose and to challenge the hegemony of enshrined or institutionalized discursive practices. The narrative of fiction is thus the locus of battle, as it were, for freedom.” As Daniel lives on the fringes of mainstream society, Doctorow operates outside of conventional storytelling.