The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. What do most of us know about them? That they were executed after being convicted of “conspiracy to commit espionage”. What you’ll learn, as I did, from Jillian Cantor’s novel The Hours Count is what their lives were like, especially Ethel’s, in the few years immediately before their deaths.
The Rosenbergs lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on Monroe Street, in a neigbourhood of immigrants, among them many Jews, including my husband’s grandmother. Though she lived there a decade earlier than the Rosenbergs we know the street well with its view of the Manhattan Bridge.
The novel features the Rosenbergs, but focuses more on a fictional woman, Mildred “Millie” Stein who lives in the same apartment building as Ethel Rosenberg and becomes her friend. Millie’s husband Ed works for Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs and Ed are communists, as are many of their friends. As the Cold War heats up so does the fear and persecution of those who admit to being communists – and the Rosenbergs and their friends are suspect.
Millie and Ed are in most ways a couple typical of their time. Ed goes off to work. Millie stays home with their child, does the household chores including the shopping but it not expected to do, or want to do, more. Ethel is more cosmopolitan and offers Millie not only friendship but also a view into a bigger world. Millie’s young son is speech delayed – his father ignores this child he believes to be less than perfect. Millie is determined to find help for her son who she believes will prove he is intelligent, if only he could speak. She seeks the help of a therapist and becomes entangled in a web of deceit, love and heartbreak.
The story begins in 1947 and ends many years later – but focuses on the years before 1953. The arrest and the trial and later the execution of the Rosenberg’s became sensational news. Television was a new thing but avidly embraced – and the newspapers made much of the story.
It is now generally agreed that Julius was guilty of passing information to the Soviet Union about the atomic bomb – though it is unlikely to have been especially valuable. Ethel may well have been innocent though she was probably well aware of her husband’s activities.
This novel is very much a period piece; anyone who was a child at this time will remember crouching under the school desk, as we practiced what to do in the event of a nuclear bomb being detonated.
The advent of television and its mesmerizing presence became the focus of the living room in every home. I realized as I read this novel that television not only brought entertainment to those poor women who were at home with children – it also brought information about what was going on in the larger world. This was also the beginning of a time when it first became possible for women to be able to make reproductive choices. The availability of birth control gave them the option of not becoming pregnant – with our without their husbands consent or knowledge.
For readers today The Hours Count is a window into the world of their parents – or grandparents. Those years of fear that seemed so terrifying at the time, and seem almost innocent now compared to the constant fear of terrorism and conflict across the globe we live with today.