The Hours Count

The Hours CountThe Hours Count by Jillian Cantor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Whatever else you know about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, one thing is true: they were the parents of two young sons. Julius had already been arrested when Ethel was called to testify before the Grand Jury on 11 August 1950. She was not given so much as a minute to make arrangements for the care of their two young sons when she was arrested immediately after testifying. One minute, she was a proper Jewish housewife and mother, wearing white gloves. The next minute, she was in custody, charged with typing her husband's notes. Whatever else you know, going into this book, realize this: ultimately, she was executed for typing. Not stealing or passing atomic secrets to the Russians. Typing.

The story is told by Millie Stein, a fictional neighbor in the apartment complex where the Rosenbergs last lived. Millie is married to Ed, a brutal Russian Jew, whose indifference to their son (probably autistic, lacking language skills) contrasts cruelly to the love and warmth in the Rosenberg family. Although Millie knows that her husband attends political - probably Communist - meetings, she is shocked to learn that he has known the Rosenbergs for years.

Ed grudgingly allows her to accept an invitation to a party at the Rosenbergs' apartment after she and Ethel become friendly, bonded by their children and shared concerns. Ethel has secretly steered Millie to Planned Parenthood for birth control, which would enrage Ed, who threatens to institutionalize their son unless she has another, "normal" child. Millie has kept secrets for Ethel to protect her privacy in the neighborhood.

Secrets are in the air at the party, where spying, lying, and politics are discussed by partygoers, including David Greenglass (Ethel's brother), his wife Ruth, and Morton Sobel, all of whom figure in the betrayal and death of the Rosenbergs. Millie also meets another (fictional) character there, a psychologist named Jake, whose promise to help her son develop language skills leads her down yet another dangerous, secret path.

Since the events that lead to the arrests, trials, and executions are only glimpsed by Millie, it can be frustrating to pick them out of the narrative. Both her husband and the therapist advance the plot without significantly enlightening the reader, since each has his own agenda, and the reader is as bewildered as Millie. Some of those glimpses are so ordinary, yet so meaningful - Julius playing with his son in the park, Ethel cooking a chicken. Others, just as true, are horrific, such as the government agents scooping evidence out of the apartment as Ethel pleads with them to spare the recording she had made of her voice, hoping they would know what she sounded like if she was gone.

Millie's plight as an abused woman who puts her trust in anyone who is kind to her and her son is vivid and heartbreaking, but her moments of clarity and insight into her husband's true business are made less believable by her ignorance of the world. Still, this detailed look at the last free days of the doomed couple is gripping and thought-provoking. The author provides a reading list. I care enough about the disquieting evidence of official malfeasance to learn more.

3 1/2 stars.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley; this is a fair review.

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