1950s, espionage, Ethel Rosenberg, FBI, historical fiction, hysteria, Jillian Cantor, Julius Rosenberg, McCarthyism, twentieth century
Review: The Hours Count, by Jillian Cantor
Riverhead, 2015. 356 pp. $27
In June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair, accused of conspiracy to commit espionage, the only American civilians ever to pay with their lives for that crime. The FBI charged Julius with having passed atomic secrets to the Soviets, and Ethel, with having typed up the papers. The case rested on a confession by Ethel’s brother, an apparent plea bargain for which he served ten years in prison. Decades later, he admitted that the prosecution had encouraged him to implicate Ethel in order to save his wife, and that he had lied to do so.
The Hours Count is a deeply disturbing novel that compels the reader to care about these doomed people, victims of a national hysteria that Cantor captures to a T. Moreover, she does so by threading politics lightly through her narrative until the last few chapters, underlining how the hysteria snowballed, catching the Rosenbergs (and just about everyone else) by surprise. Cantor conveys all this by focusing on the Rosenbergs’ loving marriage, dedication to their children, and ordinary kindness and generosity. In the milieu she creates, it defies imagination that Ethel could have been a spy, known that her husband was, or that they should have been electrocuted when all the other convicted defendants went to jail.
Cantor tells her story through Millie Stein, a down-the-hall neighbor of the Rosenbergs who sees her friend Ethel as a person much like herself, beset with day-to-day problems of caring for children, managing on an ever-tighter budget, and ignoring vicious insults from godawful relatives. For instance, if a child misbehaves or, as in Millie’s son’s case, hasn’t learned to talk by age three, it’s obviously the mother’s fault. Her mother and mother-in-law, among others, point the phrase why can’t you be like ____? at Millie like a weapon, and she feels isolated and friendless. What a superb metaphor: Even before the FBI comes knocking, there’s already an inquisition going on, and her family are the hooded judges, from whose indictment there’s no appeal. It’s as if the government or American society were a family, and the real enemy within are the opportunistic vigilantes, whether they’re J. Edgar Hoover or your grudge-holding siblings.
Millie’s dilemma, once she can no longer ignore the illogical, even nonsensical, events that take place around her–including her brutish, Russian husband’s peculiar work habits–is what to do and whom to trust. She wants to do the right thing, but it’s hard to tell what that is. As a naive, unsophisticated narrator, she can’t help believing that she’s to blame for her child’s tantrums and inability to talk, and in her yearning to help him, Millie makes some bad choices. For one, the reader knows long before she does that the psychotherapist who purports to treat her boy has another, very different agenda in mind, which includes seducing her.
That’s a literary pet peeve of mine, therapists who sleep with their patients. Yes, I know it happens in real life, and Millie craves the kindness her husband refuses to give her, so she’s a ready target. But the pervasive stereotype of the predatory, manipulative doctor of the mind is yet another form of hysteria, and though it serves Cantor’s plot, there are problems with it here.
One is Millie’s credulousness, which seems extreme. It takes her forever and a day to figure out the real sources of trouble, and once she does, she keeps trusting the wrong people. I wanted her to have more backbone, or at least a better head on her shoulders.
I also question the author’s decision to split up the chapter describing the executions and dole it out in pieces. We already know the Rosenbergs will die; in fact, the first line of the book jacket says so. Historical fiction about well-known events rests on the telling, at which Cantor does beautifully. Why, then, in the first chapter, does Millie attempt to get into Sing Sing the fatal night (which, the author admits, is highly improbable) and influence the proceedings? The vague portents mentioned in this chapter achieve nothing, in my view.
Just tell the story and have the confidence that the reader will follow. The Hours Count is one that demands to be read.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.