Monday, June 16, 2014


Daniel Lewin, along with his wife and infant son, is on his way to pick up his sister, Susan, who is in a mental institution.  Daniel is not exactly the picture of sanity himself, but he and Susan have reason to be a little unbalanced.  Their parents, Rochelle and Paul Isaacson, were Communist Party members in the 1950s and found themselves on Death Row after a flimsy trial for espionage.  Certainly the Rosenbergs come to mind, and Doctorow’s novel, published in 1971, has fictionalized their story, focusing on the children and the impact of their parents’ execution on their lives.  Daniel retraces the past, mixing first- and third-person narration, including a stint for him and Susan in a children’s shelter, from which they escaped, only to be caught by their parents’ lawyer, Ascher, and returned to the facility.  Eventually they found a home with Robert Lewin, son of Ascher’s partner, and his wife.  From that point on, their lives were as normal as could be, given their notoriety, the grief over the loss of their parents, and their mounting anger at the system that demanded their parents’ execution, despite a lack of evidence and a possibly unreliable witness.  The Isaacsons basically took the fall, refusing to divulge who their friends were and thereby impeding their own defense, much to Ascher’s exasperation.  I can admire their integrity in this attitude, especially since their execution basically took the heat off their revolutionary compatriots.  However, they sacrificed their children to the cause in the process, and since none of their friends came forward to help them, I can’t help feeling that maybe their friends weren’t worthy of the Isaacsons’ supreme loyalty.  The most oily character is Selig Mendish who fingered the Isaacsons for passing American technology secrets to the Russians, earning himself a mere 10-year incarceration.  Doctorow reminds us that American history has its share of ugly eras in which our own citizens suffer needlessly at the hands of the government whose job it is to protect them.

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