Ellen Meeropol’s Her Sister’s Tattoo is spell-binding fiction. It is all the more gripping because the characters in Meeropol’s novel inhabit historically plausible events. She has given us a true-to-life picture of what it actually was like to be part of the national movements protesting the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Meeropol is a master of vivid detail. The reader can smell the tear gas and hear the “protest music.”
As the novel opens, two sisters, Rosa and Esther, are part of a protest against the Vietnam War. When they see police officers smash their batons on the heads of other protesters, they are outraged. The sisters throw apples at the police and get arrested.
Readers of Meeropol’s three superb earlier novels know that she has a particular gift for portraying relationships within families, especially conflicts. In Her Sister’s Tattoo Esther decides that loyalty to her sister Rosa must give way to the more important responsibility to stay out of prison so that she can care for her baby daughter, Molly. Esther accepts a plea bargain and testifies against Rosa. Feeling betrayed and furious, Rosa first goes underground, but eventually spends nine years in prison, away from her own daughter.
As a result, the sisters are estranged in 1968. One of the great pleasures of this novel is that Meeropol also takes us to 1980 and 2003, so that we can see how the poisonous rift between the sisters ripples down through the entire family, having its effects not only on the sisters and their parents, but also on their husbands and children, through the years.
Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot as it unfolds, it seems safe to predict that the reader will not be disappointed by the ending. Meeropol has written yet another charismatic novel—entirely distinct in tone and characterization from the first three. Her Sister’s Tattoo approaches from a new angle the question of how one balances political and social responsibility with responsibility to family and personal life.