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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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