Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

St. Martin’s. Jun. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781250198631. $28.99. BIOG
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Americans convicted of passing government secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II, were tried, convicted, and executed together. Though the government had evidence of Julius’s espionage, they had almost nothing on Ethel. They nevertheless decided her guilt in advance and, despite intense backlash over the decision to execute a young mother, pressed a fabricated case against her to the bitter end. In this biography of Ethel Rosenberg (1915–53), author Sebba (Les Parisiennes) seeks to understand Ethel in her own right: as an aspiring singer, anxious mother of two boys, daughter of Eastern European immigrants, political activist, and wife of a Soviet spy. Sebba’s careful reconstruction of Ethel’s early life depicts both complexity and ordinariness, while Ethel’s letters from prison reveal immense courage in the face of overwhelming suffering. In the epilogue, Sebba discusses many ways in which “Ethel’s fate continued to grip the American imagination in the long aftermath of her execution.”
VERDICT A deft, chilling, and long overdue biography of an American woman singled out by dark political and cultural forces that were bent on keeping women at home and “foreign” ideas out of American minds.
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