Bookworm: ‘American Tragedy” deeply factual and surprisingly touching

Plus, three royal reads

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy”

  • By Anne Sebba
  • c. 2021, St. Martin’s Press
  • $28.99 / $38.99 Canada 320 pages

Okay, you’ll just shut up now. You won’t say a word. You’re mum, tongue tied in a knot, you ain’t no stoolie. You’ve zipped your lip for good. As in the new book, “Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy” by Anne Sebba, you’re not throwing anybody under the bus.

"Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy" by Anne Sebba.

Ethel Greenglass was born in the fall of 1915, and many of her earliest memories were of the lack of love from her mother who, it’s said, preferred boys to girls. Ethel’s birth was followed by that of two brothers; she doted on the youngest, David, and was like a “surrogate mother” to him.

By many accounts, Ethel was rather plain in appearance but was enormously musically talented and quite acclaimed. In 1934, she auditioned for New York’s Metropolitan Opera and she taught herself to sight-read music; still, she was prone to stage-jitters. It was during one such “attack of nerves” that she met Julius Rosenberg, and she fell instantly in love.

Activism was one thing the Rosenbergs shared and they took their commitment to Communism seriously, believing that it would make the world a better place. Ethel’s brother, David, was also a devotee, and he was loud in his views on Communism; this, says Sebba, makes it hard to understand why he was transferred to the site of the development of the atomic bomb while serving in the U.S. military during World War II.

“Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy” author Anne Sebba.

David’s transfer was exactly what Julius needed: he’d gotten involved with Soviet intelligence agents and David’s proximity to secrets suddenly accelerated Julius’ value to them.

By 1950, the FBI was keenly aware of Julius Rosenberg’s actions, and they believed that Ethel was aware and had perhaps helped. They’d already caught up with David, who was willing to testify against his sister...

You don’t have to stretch much to imagine the anguish this betrayal must’ve caused Ethel Rosenberg; author Anne Sebba paints that particular picture, and that of imprisonment and execution, well. Still, there are a lot of whys and loose ends in this story, including the reason for Rosenberg’s silent loyalty. Then there’s her brother and his end-of-life admittance-not-admittance of lies, the “lethal testimony” of Ethel’s sister-in-law, and the big question of guilt or innocence.

Getting any kind of hypothesis isn’t easy here; while this is a fascinating book, it’s not one you’ll want to skim. Everything you’ll read inside “Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy” is deeply factual and can be surprisingly touching; Sebba tells the story thoroughly, spanning more than century, and there’s no fat in it. You probably wouldn’t exactly call it entertaining – this is not a thrilling spy story with James-Bondish action – but it is compelling: almost 70 years after her execution, readers and historians finally get a look at the woman Rosenberg was, sans crime, and possibilities to explain her actions.

For anyone who’s unfamiliar or who wants a refresher on the Rosenbergs, this book’s great. Beware that it’s involved; even so, you’ll be captivated by “Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy” from front cover to back, until you shut it.

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“The Bench”

  • By Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, pictures by Christian Robinson
  • c. 2021, Random House
  • $18.99, higher in Canada 40 pages

“The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication”

  • By Alexander Larman
  • c. 2020, St. Martin’s Press
  • $27.99, higher in Canada 333 pages

“The Windsor Diaries 1940-45”

  • By Alathea Fitzalan Howard
  • c. 2021, Atria
  • $30, $39.99 Canada, 368 pages

When you sit down for dinner tonight, everyone will be at their favorite seat. Mama might sit next to you on one side and daddy on the other side. You might have a booster seat, or a pile of books to sit on at Grandma’s house. Nobody ever sits on someone else’s seat because that’s the way it is but in “The Bench” by Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, pictures by Christian Robinson, there’s one place where everyone wants to be.

“The Bench” by Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, “The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication” by Alexander Larman and “The Windsor Diaries 1940-45” by Alathea Fitzalan Howard.

Somewhere in your yard or on your porch, there is a bench your Daddy sat on when you were born. He waited for you there, watching the trees and the cars go by. It’s where he sits now, to spend time with you.

He knows that there’ll come a day when you’ll be a big kid but until then, he goes to that bench to watch you grow, and he makes sure he’s there when you need him. He wipes your tears when you’re sad. He tells you that he loves you.

He keeps you safe there and “you’ll never be ‘lone.”

Here’s a truth: when you’re seeking a book for a very small child, you’re really giving a gift to the parent. The same is true with “The Bench”: kids will love the sweet simple story and the quiet illustrations, but this book is just as much for the adult who’ll read it aloud.

Look closely at the illustrations by Christian Robinson, and you’ll see a few familiar figures. Keep them in mind as you read Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex’s words, and you’ll see how this children’s story, told from the point of view of a mother fits in with everything you know about Meghan and Harry and all you feel about being a (grand)parent.

Lilibet Diana is going to love this precious, lovely book.

So, will you and your child.

While you’re grabbing “The Bench,” why not find something for yourself, too?

History lovers will truly be riveted by “The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication” by Alexander Larman. Most folks alive today won’t recall the turmoil that led up to the ultimate job-quitting, when King Edward VIII stepped down from the throne, as he said, “...for the woman I love.”

In this book, you’ll find intrigue and thrills, controversy, and a host of characters who advised the King and those who worked against his plans to marry Wallis Simpson. It’s an amazing look at a bit of the past that changed the course of history.

For something lighter, look for “The Windsor Diaries 1950-45” by Alathea Fitzalan Howard, who was sent to live with her grandfather during World War II, to keep her safe. Like every child around, she loved to go play with the neighbor kids... who just happened to be the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Written in diary form, this book is easy to enjoy, as a delightful look at a British childhood during a tumultuous time. Grab it, and have a seat ...

More:Bookworm: ‘Let’s Talk’ is for gluing together relationships and hearts

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.