Ethel Rosenberg, Reimagined

Jillian Cantor’s acclaimed novel offers a deft and poignant take on the story of two devoted mothers—one fictional, the other, only the second woman to be executed by the federal government.

By Sue Tomchin

Looking for a great paperback to stash in your overnight bag for the Labor Day weekend? We have a recommendation. 

Due out in paperback on August 30—or downloadable now on your Kindle—is The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor’s absorbing novel that reimagines the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage. 

The story is told through the lens of a fictional neighbor Millie Stein, who meets and befriends Ethel at the Knickerbocker Towers, the New York City apartment building where the Rosenbergs lived prior to their arrest. Ethel and Millie bond over concerns for their children’s well-being and the challenges of being young mothers whose lives are circumscribed by limited incomes and few opportunities to spread their wings.

Photo by Alan Cantor

Photo by Alan Cantor

This absorbing and often poignant novel is rife with spies, counterspies, and subterfuge and conveys the paranoia of the Cold War era when Americans worried obsessively about “the bomb,” and “the Reds.” It also captures a time when male-female roles were rigidly adhered to and women were often kept in the dark about the agendas of the men in their lives. 

Cantor’s critically acclaimed 2013 novel, Margot, also uses a historic figure as inspiration: Margot Frank, Anne’s sister, whom she portrays as surviving Bergen-Belsen and coming to America where she poses as a Christian from Poland. As the fame of her sister’s diary grows, her fabricated life begins to unravel.

Read Jillian Cantor’s essay on motherhood and Ethel Rosenberg