If I had a therapist, she would probably suggest that my novels all reach back into family history, trying to understand the costs of political activism. Not a surprising concept when you consider that my husband was orphaned as a child because of his parents’ politics.
When I met Robby my sophomore year in college, he had never told a soul that his parents were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He didn’t tell me either, not until the day I moved into his bedroom in the communal house at the edge of campus. Some people knew, of course, and over the years I would occasionally see the spark of recognition in someone’s eyes when the name was spoken; Meeropol was the equivalent of a secret handshake, but people rarely said anything out of respect for Robby’s privacy.
I did not start writing fiction until decades later, but I read voraciously, passionately: Doris Lessing
and Octavia Butler
, Laura Hobson
and Julia Alvarez
, Simone de Beauvoir
and Chinua Achebe
, Linda Hogan
and Edwidge Danticat
and Rosellen Brown
and James Baldwin
and Gillian Slovo
and Paule Marshall
. I devoured these novels with their outrage at injustice, with their complicated characters who take on their world and have something at stake, something bigger than themselves. When I did start writing and studying craft, I was surprised to learn that literary fiction is supposed to be “above” politics. That made no sense to me, as a reader or a writer.
That said, I have to admit that none of my novels begin with a theme and I had no intention of mining Robby’s political legacy. Each book started from something very small, from a character, an image, a what-if. Quickly, however, in each case, that spark flared into some kind of meditation on what can happen in families when adults take action based on strong beliefs, on how the consequences can be catastrophic. Each novel sent me in a different direction spiraling back to similar questions: What lessons do children learn from their parents’ activism? What messages of responsibility and moral obligation are passed down, and at what cost?
When I started writing my first novel, House Arrest
, the spark was a short newspaper story about a court assigning a nurse to monitor the pregnancy of a young cult member under house arrest. As a nurse practitioner, I wondered what it would be like to build a therapeutic relationship with a patient who likely had unusual, possibly bizarre, opinions about pregnancy and families. When I started, all I had were two characters: Pippa was a pregnant young woman under house arrest, living in an oddball cult. Emily was a nurse working for a home care agency. Neither woman was pleased with the assignment, but I believed a life-altering friendship would develop between them. I expected that Pippa would ask Emily to help her, in some way that challenged Emily’s beliefs about right and wrong.
Writing fiction is such a magical stew of the conscious brain seasoned and simmered with memories, dreams, and imagination. And as I wrote the first draft and learned more about these two characters, it became clear to me that they were both haunted by childhood experiences relating to their parents’ political beliefs and actions. I was mildly surprised but not deeply shocked when issues of anti-war politics and the Klan wormed their way into my story. At one point Emily, whose father firebombed a draft board during the Vietnam War and died in prison, asks, “So was burning down that draft board worth it, towards stopping the war? When you balance the action against messing up three lives, four counting the janitor?”
On Hurricane Island
sparked into life in the security line at JFK Airport. My main character appeared in front of me, fully developed as a mathematics professor with short gray hair, a lesbian named Gandalf Cohen. In my imagination, a TSA officer takes her arm and escorts her down a corridor and out of sight, so I wrote the book to find out what happens. Turns out that Homeland Security believes she has knowledge about terrorism and takes her to a civilian detention center on an island off the coast of Maine for interrogation. This is a book about torture and government abuse of power; the consequences of activism thread is part of an important backstory about a labor struggle on that same island a century earlier.
In this new novel, Kinship of Clover
, the cost of political activism around climate justice is front and center. My attention returns to several minor characters from House Arrest
, 11 years later. Jeremy, who was a child in Pippa's oddball cult, is now a college sophomore, a botany student who is so dedicated to stopping the climate change-related extinction of plant species that he hallucinates their vines burrowing into his body. His girlfriend's grandmother, Flo, a lifelong left-wing activist now struggling with Alzheimer's, wants to pass on her political savvy to the young people but must also face the consequences of the lies from her past. The conversations between Jeremy and Flo, separated in age by over 50 years, were a delight to write:
“What's your shtick with the plants?” Flo asked.
“Two hundred species go extinct every day.”
“Nonsense,” Flo said. “Where'd you get your numbers?”
“The United Nations, I think. I'm not sure. But I know it's not a natural process. People are causing it. Industry and pollution.”
“Global warming, huh? How does that fit into class struggle?”
Despite their wildly different life experiences, Jeremy and Flo ponder similar questions. “How do you stay true to the people you care about,” Jeremy asks Flo, “While you’re trying to change the world?” They share a commitment to fighting injustice and very personal knowledge of the costs that can come with the territory.
Because it's always personal, isn't it? Even in the midst of intense political struggle, government repression, restrictions, and loss, parents still try their best to keep their families together, to take care of their children. It doesn’t always work out well. Robby lived with his birth parents for only three years before they were arrested and their parenting opportunities were narrowed to letters he couldn't yet read and about a dozen prison visits. Years later, Robby had to accept that his father was involved in non-atomic espionage for the Soviet Union; it wasn't the crime he was executed for, but it was a crime.
What does it mean that Robby's parents were willing to take big risks in their desire to help the Soviet Union defeat Hitler? Does it mean, as the judge claimed when he convicted them, that their love for their cause “was even greater than their love for their children,” or were the actions taken because of love for their children and the desire to give them a better world. Were Julius’s actions wrong because the consequences were so awful? Is it sometimes right to bend, or break, the law in order to serve justice? And what do these questions mean for people around the world today who are fighting racism and global warming and poverty and loss of self-determination, and who must sometimes make profoundly difficult decisions about activism and its possible consequences for their beloved families.
These are the questions I ponder in these frightening months of 2017, with daily assaults on the civil liberties of so many racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities that we may actually be the majority. These questions take on more importance every day. As I protest, and continue to write fiction, I am grateful to have characters like Jeremy and Flo and Zoe and Gandalf and Emily to help me figure it out.
÷ ÷ ÷
's characters live on the fault lines of political turmoil and human connection. She is the author of two previous novels, House Arrest
and On Hurricane Island
. Her most recent novel is Kinship of Clover
. A literary late bloomer, she began seriously writing fiction in her 50s. Her short fiction and essays have been published in Bridges
, The Rumpus
, Portland Magazine
, Beyond the Margins
, The Drum
, and The Writer's Chronicle
. A former pediatric nurse practitioner and part-time bookseller, Ellen holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Western Massachusetts.