Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems

Written by Barbara Krasner
Review by Beth Kanell

The political morass of the Rosenberg story—the arrest and trial of Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and her husband, Julius, on charges of treason garbed in anti-Communist demonizing—makes up a disturbing part of American history that remains unresolved, perhaps intensified, in our time of partisan politics. In a brilliant new approach to the narrative, Barbara Krasner offers a book-length sequence of poems that focuses on Ethel as girl, woman, spouse, and eventually sacrifice. Highly readable for middle grades through adults, the book brings Ethel alive as a passionate and thoughtful person in New York City from 1925 to 1953.

Who can resist the admissions of this girl who hates washing out diapers and must dodge her mother’s caustic tongue? Forced to quit school early and take a factory job, she savors new words she learns, like “fascism” (“A place where the government gets rid of people/it doesn’t like … Who and what are next?”). She puts Japan, Italy, and Germany into a tale of three little pigs and is clearly all-American in her politics—except that she takes the promises of equality and the American dream more seriously than her government is willing to allow. When she reads in a book that “Communism is no different/than working for the brotherhood of all man,” she finds the belief that she and her beloved “Julie” (Julius) share.

The cascade of short, clear poems follows Ethel’s life all the way to her unjustly imposed death, but without horror or gore. Calm and direct, Ethel’s “song” of her life portrays how politics can go awry and justice fail. Yet it uplifts and delights, through the care and quiet elegance of the telling.