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The price of protest: New novel looks at the consequences for two sisters caught up in the anti-war movement

  • Ellen Meeropol’s new novel looks at the consequences of the actions of two sisters caught up in protests against the Vietnam War.

  • Ellen Meeropol’s previous novels have been honored by the Women's National Book Association and the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Photo by Danielle Tait



Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Family relations can be fraught in the best of times, even when people care deeply for one another.

So what happens when you throw those family members into a situation as charged and divisive as the Vietnam War — and then force them to choose between family loyalty and personal beliefs when making a critical decision?

In Ellen Meeropol’s newest novel, “Her Sister’s Tattoo,” two sisters in their early 20s, Rosa and Esther Levin, take part in an anti-Vietnam War rally in Detroit in the volatile summer of 1968. Rosa, the older of the two, is dedicated to stopping the war any way she can. Her sister, Esther, opposes the war as well but also has an infant daughter who’s become the new focus of her life.

As tear gas hangs in the air, the sisters witness mounted police clubbing demonstrators a few blocks from the main protest site. Rosa insists the two intervene and try and protect their fellow protestors. What happens next will alter their lives forever, leading to a prolonged estrangement between the sisters.

In a recent phone interview, Meeropol, now living in Northampton after many years in Easthampton, said “Her Sister’s Tattoo” actually began some 20 years ago as a short story that’s now an important chapter in the novel. In that story, two 12-year-old girls meet at a summer camp and discover they’re cousins, a critical fact kept from both of them because their mothers have been out of touch for years.

“I realized not long after I’d written that story that, one, I wanted it to be part of a novel,” Meeropol said with a laugh. “But the second thing that occurred to me was that I really didn’t know how to do that.”

Meeropol has written three other well-regarded novels but by her own description is a literary late bloomer. She had a previous career in nursing (during which she also wrote about the profession for various nursing publications) and later earned an MFA from a writing program at the University of Southern Maine.

For the past 20-odd years, she has dedicated herself to writing and being active in the Valley’s literary community. And even as she penned essays and her three previous novels, she kept working on and honing “My Sister’s Tattoo,” in part because of encouragement from her longtime editor at her publisher, Red Hen Press.

“Her response [to my earlier manuscript] was ‘This is the book you were born to write,’ ” said Meeropol.

Like her previous novels, “My Sister’s Tattoo” is based around a couple different themes: the action of people who try to confront some form of injustice, and how their decisions can reverberate through their families, in particular their children. That’s no surprise: Meeropol’s husband, Robert Meeropol, is the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who in 1953 were convicted and executed for allegedly passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the former Soviet Union.

Evidence has long since surfaced that some people, including Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, fabricated testimony against the couple, and Robert Meeropol has maintained that his father did not pass atomic secrets to the Russians, his mother was only peripherally involved in the case, and that neither of his parents deserved the death penalty.

But Ellen Meeropol notes that though the Rosenberg case “can be seen in the sisters’ story, I don’t think I was consciously using that when I wrote the novel.” Her focus, she says, was rather in recounting a period of time she was caught up in as a younger woman — the anti-war protests of the 1960s and early 1970s — and how and why people make decisions to become politically active, not knowing what the consequences may be.

At the anti-war protest that opens “Her Sister’s Tattoo,” the fiery Rosa demands her more pliant sister join her in throwing small, hard apples from their backpack at the mounted police who are clubbing protestors. One of the horses is struck by the projectiles and rears and throws an officer, who is seriously injured; the sisters are photographed in the act and soon arrested.

Rosa wants to use the case symbolically, to argue that her and Esther’s action was justified to try and stop a larger wrong: the killing of Vietnamese people. She also expects Esther to back her up all the way. But Esther, who believes what she and Rosa have done was wrong, and is terrified at the prospect of being jailed when her daughter, Molly, is just five months old, accepts a plea bargain to lesser charges, which also involves testifying against her sister.

The novel, using the voices of multiple characters — including Jake, Esther’s husband; Allen, Rosa’s partner; and Molly, Esther and Jake’s daughter, at ages 12 and 35 — examines how that decision drives the formerly close sisters apart for years and pushes their lives in very different directions. Their raw emotions — anger, regret, grief, guilt, self-doubt, and love — are revealed in part through letters Rosa and Esther write to each other but never send.

In considering the character of Esther in particular, Meeropol said, “I wanted to try to show what it would be like to have to face these impossible choices. On one hand, there’s the issue of family loyalty. Then there’s the need to face the truth of what you’ve done, and finally, there’s the desire to work for social change. How do you reconcile all of that?”

Another important theme in the novel is how secrets and lies can undercut even seemingly strong families, creating whole new levels of distrust and anger — especially between children and parents — in turn making reconciliation more difficult.

In the end, Meeropol hopes her novel will also be seen as a call for public engagement in bigger issues. “We’re seeing so many issues today, from climate change to a lack of leadership [in Washington], and now your have this pandemic … we really can’t afford to stay silent.”

Like writers everywhere, Meeropol has seen her public readings this spring and summer canceled or likely to be postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But she’s turned to Zoom and other online platforms in the meantime. You can see her discuss her new book in a video made at Broadside Books in Northampton, available at youtu.be/FQiOaHG09Tk.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.More information is available at ellenmeeropol.com.