Ellen Meeropol’s last name is famous among those of us who still recall the tragic case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were put to death in 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Their two young sons, Robert and Michael, were adopted by a couple named Meeropol, and the author is married to Robert. “Her Sister’s Tattoo” (Red Hen Press), Meeropol’s engaging and compelling new novel, is not about the Rosenbergs, but the case casts a long shadow over the book.
The story Meeropol tells in “My Sister’s Tattoo” opens in 1968, a time when Americans took to the streets to protest war, racism and poverty. Esther and Rosa Levin, sisters raised by progressive parents, are chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Horse-mounted cops are wielding billy clubs, and tear gas is in the air. But Esther is thinking of her 5-month-old daughter, Molly, who is back home with a babysitter, and she is torn by the contradictory roles she feels called upon to play: “If she were stronger or braver, maybe she could do everything: be an activist and a mother and an artist.”
The dilemma, as it turns out, is not merely a matter of personal choice. An incident that takes place at the demonstration — perhaps only an exercise of “guerrilla theater tactics” or perhaps an act of criminal violence — thrusts Esther and Rosa into public notoriety and acute legal peril. Either way, as their mother puts it, “This is big trouble.” Here, for example, the author explicitly acknowledges the heartbreaking childhood of her real-life husband: “Who would take [care] of Molly,” Esther muses, “if she were arrested.”
The whole family is drawn into the drama. Esther’s husband, Jake, is a pediatrician — “a regular Albert Schweitzer of toddlerland,” as Rosa disdainfully puts it because Jake is no activist. Rosa’s boyfriend, Allen, is a lawyer, “smart and savvy and active in the Black Panthers, but he preferred his battles in the courtroom rather than the streets.” For that reason, Rosa wants Allen to bring in “someone really political. And not a white male.”
Ellen Meeropol succeeds in creating and sustaining the kind of tension we expect to find in a mystery novel.
Meeropol directs the reader’s attention to the political repercussions of her tale — Rosa insists they must “contrast this one injured cop with thousands of mangled and murdered Vietnamese people” – but, notably, Meeropol also wants us to see the most intimate moments her characters are forced to endure. For example, Esther is arrested at home after she has given her baby only one breast, and when she finds herself behind bars, Meeropol shows us a scene I’ve never encountered in a book before: “She slipped her hand under her T-shirt and touched the tight ache in her right breast, hard with milk. ‘I feel so damned lopsided. If I try to stand up, I’ll tip over sideways.’ ”
Solidarity is a core value of progressive politics, but Esther and Rosa quickly realize they cannot always count on their friends and comrades. “I guess sisterhood isn’t that powerful,” cracks Jake. Indeed, the two sisters cannot even agree on how to defend themselves against the charges they are facing. Esther wants “to tell the truth about what happened,” and Rosa wants to mount a political defense. Here, too, we find repercussions of the Rosenberg case, which involved the passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviets and turned on the testimony that Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and sister-in-law gave against the Rosenbergs in court.
“I mean, how can that be wrong, telling the truth?” Esther asks in “Her Sister’s Tattoo.” “We did it, you know?”
“Rosa sees it as a betrayal,” responds Maggie, one of their fellow demonstrators. “Besides, is there only one truth here? There are no possible nuances of motivation or necessity?”
Surely it is significant that Esther Levin’s married name in Meeropol’s novel is Green. Ethel Rosenberg’s maiden name was Greenglass, and it was her brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, whose testimony sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair.
The title of the book, too, is profoundly ironic. Both young women have matching tattoos — a red star on their left breasts, a symbol of both political and sisterly solidarity. “A tattoo is forever,” Esther muses. “Like a sister.” But the case tears them apart, literally, when Rosa goes underground rather than waiting for the verdict. And their breach strains and breaks the bonds of family and friendship among virtually all of the characters we meet in “Her Sister’s Tattoo.”
“I don’t know where you are right now, Ms. Queen of the Underground,” Jake says. “And if you have any thoughts of reclaiming your sister, forget it. You’re toxic, Rosa. Poison. Stay away from my family.”
Meeropol succeeds in creating and sustaining the kind of tension we expect to find in a mystery novel. Both Rosa and Esther find themselves in ever greater peril, and we want to know what price the sisters will pay for their deeds, both the ones that are alleged and the ones that are self-confessed. But we also want to know, and perhaps with even greater urgency, whether the broken links in the various relationships can and will be restored. And Meeropol answers the questions in a poignant denouement that comes as a complete surprise.
“Her Sister’s Tattoo” is all about a family with a multigenerational passion for political activism, but the narrator’s voice is always clear and calm. Meeropol writes with precision, insight and compassion about the most tumultuous moments in human life, whether they happen in public or in private. Above all, she artfully invents a fictional story that enables readers to penetrate some of the agonies and mysteries of a very real case.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.