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Fiction that tells the truth: Civil rights, the Middle East, and the Rosenberg case

Fiction is the best way I know to understand the world. Oh, I read the morning paper and follow online alternative media, and watch the evening news. But my deepest delving into the big issues, the messy complicated and critical issues, is through imaginative works of fiction. Of course the facts, the details of time and place and person are often changed (re-imagined) to serve the story. But if the novel works, it takes the reader across otherwise insurmountable borders of time and nation, of race and ethnicity and gender and age, to experience – “first hand” – the thorny and challenging issues facing our world.

Three recent novels took me to new/old places, and illuminated segments of the world – both historical and contemporary. MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem, as a family responds to the terrorist bomb that kills two of its members. THE HOURS COUNT, Jillian Cantor novel’s about Ethel Rosenberg, brought me home, to my own family. Each of these novels successfully bring to life an important moment in history. Each offers an experience that readers might not otherwise access.

I was thrilled to hear that MOURNER’S BENCH was being published. I met the author Sanderia Faye, about ten years ago in a Contemporary Novel writing workshop led by Dennis Lehane. It was an enormously productive week for me, but the thing I remember most was Sanderia’s chapter from this novel. Her young protagonist Sarah is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.

I’m just finishing my second reading of Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW, in preparation for leading a book group discussion. Some novels fade a bit with rereading, but not this one. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.

Finally, I want to talk about THE HOURS COUNT, by Jillian Cantor. I heard about this book from a friend and contacted the author, requesting an advance copy. I did so with mixed emotions, because – as I’ve written about previously – I haven’t loved most of the fiction based on my family’s story. (I’m married to Robert Meeropol, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.) Cantor’s story is told by Millie, a fictional character who lives in Knickerbocker Village and becomes close friends with Ethel. A mix of fact and fiction is always tricky and some of Cantor’s choices don’t make sense to me. Why name one of her characters Jake Gold, when Harry Gold was a “real” participant? Why name Millie’s son David, to be confused with the “real” David Greenglass? Why rewrite how the bomb sketch was used?

That said, I found the novel emotionally compelling. The relationship between Millie and Ethel was complex and tender. The depictions of the parenting challenges shared by the two women was well done and felt true. On a personal level, I have spent decades wondering who Ethel Rosenberg really was – reading her letters, examining photos of her, listening to stories from those who knew her. I’ve spent years writing about her as a way to try to know this woman who gave birth to my husband. Reading Jillian Cantor’s novel, I was surprised at how close I felt to this novelist’s fictionalization of my mother-in-law, whose 100th birthday, by the way, is September 28 . Thank you, Jillian, for that gift.  Read More 
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A dark domestic tale

IN THE CONTEXT OF LOVE is a story about love gone wrong and the long journey back. Angelica Shirrick is a young mother whose husband is in prison. In order to move forward with her life, she faces both her ruined early love affair and a web of family lies and secrets. This is dark domestic material, woven into an emotionally powerful tale. After reading the novel, I had some questions for debut author Linda K. Sienkiewicz.

Q. Several times, I found myself surprised while reading this book. Things happened that I didn’t expect. In writing the book, did your characters surprise you at any times?

A. Yes, they took some unexpected turns. Angelica, in particular, concerned me. I worried about her behavior, especially at her ten year class reunion. I knew she was falling into a deep hole and I had to be sure I could get her back out. Her husband, Gavin, was rather shady and unpredictable, and it was interesting to follow him over to the dark side. I would say Angelica's father, too, surprised me. I didn't think he'd end up being such a pivotal character.

Q. In the heart of this book is a secret, a dark secret. It’s part of what drives the plot and what keeps us turning pages. I’m curious about when you, as the writer, discovered this secret – did you always know it and construct the narrative around it? Or, did you discover it along with Angelica?

A. The secret was the inspiration for the novel. In the nineties, I'd read a Glamour magazine article about several women who had learned this devastating truth about their conception when they were young adults. Their stories, their strength, and their capacity to forgive so impressed me that I decided to write a fictional story about such a woman. I didn't know how Angelica would learn the secret, or what she would do, but exploring those questions was the challenge and joy of writing this book.

Q. One of the things I loved about your novel was your use of second person. Angelica tells this story to Joe, her first love. Joe seems present throughout the novel, and the reader feels very close to Angelica’s yearning for him. I wonder when in the writing/revision process you decided to utilize that point of view.

A. I had written a rough first draft when I had learned about first-person/second-person address from Josip Novakovich's craft book, Fiction Writers Workshop. Novakovich wondered why it isn't used much in fiction because he feels it can be an effective point of view, particularly in love stories. In fact, to my knowledge, the novels that make use of this literary device can be counted on one hand. I was so intrigued that I had to try it with my manuscript. Changing it was a monumental undertaking, but the more I worked with this point of view, the more excited I became. I even wrote my MFA thesis on second person address. I consider it to be the most intimate point of view a writer can use in fiction.

Q. I read – and was very moved by – your blog about sexual assault. Did you know from the onset that a character would experience this kind of assault? What was your emotional experience of mining such painful personal experience for literary purpose?

A. I didn't relate my own experience to the story until recently, but I'm certain that what happened to me was one of the reasons I was compelled to write such a novel; I just didn't realize it at the time. The way victims of sexual assault are shamed by society has always disturbed me. Victims are essentially silenced. For years I felt I was to blame for what happened to me, and was sure no one would believe otherwise. Being able to write about it, to say, "This happened, it wasn't right, and it hurt me," was incredibly empowering. Likewise, for the characters in In the Context of Love, speaking out is powerful and healing.

Read about Linda's experience and more about this book on her website.

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