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Ethel: The Fictional Autobiography

A “fictional autobiography” makes about as much sense as a “universalized exception.” Yet in Ethel: The Fictional Autobiography (Syracuse University Press, $24.95), Tema Nason’s first novel, both phrases apply. Nason crafts a fictional first person narrative of the last months of the life of Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 alongside her husband Julius for allegedly passing the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviets. Concerned less with Ethel’s actual innocence or guilt than with hearing her personal voice, this novel finds its power in fleshing out a historical figure who is often reduced to a political figurehead.

Nason’s Ethel sits alone in her jail cell, contemplating life as she awaits her preordained death. Since every reader can be assumed to know the outcome of the trial, Nason focuses instead on Ethel’s thoughts. Ethel’s flashbacks are unexpected: instead of focusing on the Communist movement or the illustration of the bomb around which her trial revolved, they illuminate her relationships with her mother, her children, her personal aspirations. Her conflicts are Every woman’s conflicts: between family and job, conventions and dreams. Nason makes Ethel universal even as she emphasizes the exceptional nature of her situation.

Ethel dreams as everyone dreams: “Always with new situations…my mind would go on like that; this was going to change my life, this, this was it, this new thing…like Cinderella at the ball, and this would turn my life, now lived in suspension, into the Real Thing.” She aspires to theatrical stardom, but finds herself turning instead to sweat shops and then picket lines. Ethel, who dies from her unswaying assertion of her innocence, arrives at the conclusion that without honesty and compassion, human interactions are no more than a farce.

Although Nason’s prose is stilted at times, the relationships she creates between Ethel and other characters—her sons, Michael and Robert, her husband Julius, her mother and her brother—are rich and believable. Nason doesn’t claim to recreate a historical moment; instead she brings the past vividly to the present.