Favorite Fictional Characters, #42: Danny Saunders
I first read Chaim Potok's The Chosen when it was assigned in early high school. I was struck then by Danny Saunders, a character so thoroughly alien to me, and to many of us in our suburban New Hampshire hothouse. I'd never been exposed much to Judaism, other than a handful of friends, none of them even approaching the orthodoxy of the Saunders family of 1940s Brooklyn. I was fascinated by the cultural differences, but that was all just context, intriguing as it was. What compelled me about Danny was the pressure heaped upon him, and his resulting isolation.
Danny's brilliance, his genius, really, is a massive burden for him, made even weightier by his father's stern expectations. He is trapped, and his only outlet is his friendship with Reuven Malter, and in my first reading, that friendship was the key theme in the book. Being a true friend, especially in the confusing years of adolescence, is a challenging proposition, whether in postwar New York or in the new millennium, making that theme a timeless one. (As a side note, it's curious that two of my favorite books, The Chosen and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have an injury from a batted baseball as a key plot device.)
Interestingly, I re-read The Chosen a few years ago, after the birth of my children. I was stunned to realize that I'd completely missed the other main theme of the book, and the core of its wisdom: the agonizing bonds of fathers and sons. Danny and Reuven were the total story to me at fifteen. At thirty-five, it was about Reb Saunders and David Malter, their attempts to raise their sons into men the best they knew how, against the obstacles erected by a rapidly changing world. Danny remains one of my favorite characters in literature, complex and at times tragic, though ultimately redeemed. But the sacrifices and heartache of his father are what resonate with me now, the aching sadness and joy of watching your son make his own way, often resenting you while he does so. I shudder to think of the years ahead with my own boys.