When Millie Stein agrees to watch Ethel Rosenberg’s two young boys one summer morning, she has no idea that her neighbor and good friend will not return; and she cannot imagine how her own life will change or understand the decisions she will have to make. Millie is the fictional neighbor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who in 1950, during the height of the Red Scare, were arrested for conspiring to commit espionage against the United States. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953, the only civilian Americans to be killed for spying for the Russians. Jillian Cantor has written a terrific historical fiction novel about the Rosenbergs, imagining what their lives were like in the Jewish community of Knickerbocker Village in lower Manhattan.
Millie hopes for a happy family life when she marries Ed Stein, a Russian immigrant, but Ed has many secrets about his job and his association with the Communist party. And what should be the shared joy of raising a baby boy creates a further divide instead, because something is wrong with David. At two years old, he’s still not talking. Ed wants a normal son and rejects David; and although they share an apartment and a bed, Millie is left alone to raise their son. She loves him dearly, yet she thinks she has failed as a mother. Millie dreads the idea of having another child, and failing again, but Ed wants a normal boy to carry the family name.
Shunned by the other young mothers because of David’s antisocial behavior, Millie feels isolated in their small apartment. She meets her neighbor Ethel, who has a young boy and is pregnant with her second child. The two women become friends, but Ethel seems to have her own secrets. Perhaps Millie worries about Julius’ meetings with other communists, or about her discovery that Ed has known Julius for years. Or maybe it’s Ed’s heavy drinking and his mysterious late-night telephone calls, but Millie senses there’s a whole lot going on in her small world. Ethel tells Mille to just “let the men be the men. Who knows half the reasons why they do the things they do,” she adds.
Millie is hopeful when she meets a mysterious doctor at one of the Rosenbergs’ parties. Dr. Jacob Gold is a doctor of psychotherapy and says he can help David, the beginning of a confusing and dangerous relationship.
As the FBI closes in on anti-American spies, Millie’s small world begins to fall apart. Trusting no one, least of all Ed, she must act on her own to save herself and her children.
The Hours Count is a great story written into a fascinating piece of history. Cantor’s characters allow the reader to imagine the lives behind these figures and suggest how beliefs and circumstances create suspicions and double lives. Up until the day they died, the Rosenbergs vehemently denied being spies and Ethel’s role in particular has been questioned. Cantor’s story shows what these people may have been like, as parents and as friends.
Click here for more information about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
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