Two women, both mothers, become friends; the concept is simple enough. And when you get down to the nuts-and-bolts of it, it only seems logical, really: they live on the same floor of the same building in Cold War-era Knickerbocker Village, an apartment complex in New York City; their husbands work together, socialize together, and both come from Russian Jewish stock; and their oldest boys both … well, suffice it to say that they both have peculiarities that you can’t see at first glance, but that nonetheless cause them to stand out, and often apart, from their peers. The relationship starts when David, Millie’s toddler son, is drawn to the yellow roses in Ethel’s hand. Lately, David is drawn to everything yellow — yellow taxi cabs, yellow gumdrops, yellow building blocks — but today, it’s the roses he sees, and so David reaches for them and knocks them from Ethel’s hand, sending them scattering across the sidewalk.
The exchange is brief, but the neighbors introduce themselves to one another, at least. Millie notes that the Rosenbergs seem to be rather private people, but she envies the apparent softness and mutual respect in their relationship, a quality that seems to be missing from Millie’s own relationship with her husband, Ed. Before long, Millie and Ethel are sharing coffee, venturing together to the park, and even babysitting for each other until one day everything changes overnight. Ethel’s husband Julius — Julie to those closest to him — is arrested and taken into custody by the FBI; there is a press rush, a grand jury trial, and Ethel takes the stand in her husband’s defense. But, on her way home from testifying, Mrs. Rosenberg is detained as well and, not three years later, after a whirlwind of appeals, stays of execution, and protests, on June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg become the only American citizens ever to be executed for espionage or, more specifically, conspiracy to commit espionage.
Local award-winning author of adult and young adult fiction Jillian Cantor’s newest novel, “The Hours Count” (Riverhead Books), is a daring and carefully measured look at the McCarthy Communist witch hunt, including the generalized fear of communists and Russians at that time, as well the omnipresent threat of an atom bomb wiping Manhattan off the map. Among Americans, fear during the Cold War was “palpable,” Cantor told the AJP, adding, “Fear will sometimes cause us to act in extreme ways.” “The Hours Count” is an elucidation of that experience of perpetual fear, and the ways that people living with it still have to go on living — the groceries still need to be bought, work still has to be done and the children still need to be fed, no matter the beast rearing its head before you.
Cantor is the author of the critically acclaimed “Margot,” which imagines a provocative alternate history for Anne Frank’s sister, who died in Bergen Belsen. She admits that, initially, her knowledge of the Rosenberg saga was only what she could remember from high school — that they were Soviet spies executed in the 1950s. As she began delving into the history, it turned out that the story of these two so-called “traitors” was much more nuanced. Cantor says she first became interested in writing about the Rosenberg case, and Ethel Rosenberg in particular, when she checked out an anthology of women’s letters from the library and found a letter written by Julius and Ethel to their two young boys on the morning they were scheduled to be executed. “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience,” it says near the end of that letter, and that, Cantor says, is what made Ethel Rosenberg no longer just a historical figure in a book to her, but an actual human being.
Through her research, Cantor realized that her two sons were about the same age as the two Rosenberg boys had been when their parents were put to death in the electric chair at the Sing Sing Prison Complex. “I really became interested in thinking about what Ethel was like as a mother,” Cantor says. “I wanted to imagine, not this woman who was a spy … but to think about who she was as a person, what happened to her and what happened to her kids.”
“The Hours Count” goes on sale on Oct. 20. Cantor’s next scheduled appearance in Tucson is at the Tucson Festival of Books in March 2016. More information and an updated appearance schedule can be found at jilliancantor.com.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.