Roth creates a mesmerizing alternate world as well, in which Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election, and Philip, his parents and his brother weather the storm in Newark, N.J. Incorporating Lindbergh's actual radio address in which he accused the British and the Jews of trying to force America into a foreign war, Roth builds an eerily logical narrative that shows how isolationists in and out of government, emboldened by Lindbergh's blatant anti-Semitism (he invites von Rippentrop to the White House, etc.), enact new laws and create an atmosphere of religious hatred that culminates in nationwide pogroms.
This was the first time I read a novel by Roth, mainly because I've always been a bit scared to tackle some of the subjects of his previous books. Roth is a GREAT WRITER and his books deal with BIG ISSUES so I wasn't very confident that a schlub like me could handle them. If Plot is any indication, I needn't have worried - Roth's novel is very accessible and is written on an extremely personal scale. You go through this nightmare right along with young Phillip's family. You get your news the same way they do - by listening to sympathetic newsmen, by dissecting presidential speeches, and by noticing how, family by family, your block is being torn apart. You feel for Roth's fictional family, you fear for their future and you keep reading to make sure they end up alright. An excellent story of how actions at the national level affects life in even the smallest of neighborhoods.
The book presents an alternate reality in which Charles A. Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election with a populist, isolationist, America First campaign message, one of collaboration with Hitler, that veers into a darker story of a political language that unleashes prejudice and anti-Semitism that roils uneasily just below the surface of American society. Roth handles this adroitly, with impeccable research into the public personae of men like Lindbergh, Walter Winchell, and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
We experience the gradual abrogation of American freedoms through the eyes of the adult narrator Philip Roth, who reflects from a distance on the terrifying experience of his boyhood self, nine years old when Lindbergh takes office. The heart of the novel is the story of young Roth and his small but brilliantly depicted world of Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey. Caught in a maelstrom of political depravity, and leavened with no small measure of family peculiarity, Roth confronts his terror and confusion. His elders offer little consolation, as they too struggle to cope with this unprecedented threat to their formerly anchored American lives.
I found the book indeed to be timely. Civil liberties ought never be taken for granted. There is no time like the present for an incisive reminder.
The father is a wonderful, innocent, crank who, when discussing the anti-Semitic takeover of his country with his wife-a subject that terrifies and enrages him-restrains himself because "the little one", seven year old Philip, our narrator, is doing his homework in the next room.
The widow that lives downstairs is a stoic, hardworking hero with thick forearms and a kind heart. Other neighbors, Philip's teachers and even the goy, pork chop eating Kentucky farmer and wife, are celebrated as decent, hardworking people both staunch and generous in the face of fear and crisis.
But what makes the book, and made me reconsider my opinion of Roth, is the mother. The conversations she has with her children are like poetry, the poetry of Newark, but poetry nonetheless. "Sandy," she says to her eldest son, who is being forced to decline the honor of dinner at the White House with a Nazi. "What should we do? Do you want to discuss why Daddy feels this way, or should we go to bed now and talk about it in the morning?" Again, in a brilliant scene, on the telephone with a panicked child three states away. He is home alone late at night while the Klan is riding through his community and he hasn't had anything to eat since his after school snack. She responds like the Jewish mother archetype we have all become accustomed to: she feeds him. But here it is written so tenderly we choke up rather than roll our eyes: “I want you to eat breakfast, I want you to use a spoon and a fork and a napkin and a knife. Eat slowly. Use dishes. I will call you back in a half an hour...after you have eaten." She hangs up and swiftly arranges his rescue.
Until this moment, Philip says, he never thought of his parents as “creatures” just like him. He has cherished his stamp collection more than his family and he has plotted to run away, masquerade as a deaf-mute and get a job at a pretzel factory (deaf-mutes are apparently the best pretzel twisters) without a thought of the worry he would be inflicting upon them. Finally, he does see, he does value, he becomes something other than a child and witnessing it so may we.
The Nazis will probably continue to fascinate us as much for the next fifty years as they have the last. I imagine many people picked up this book because of the swastika on the cover. They will be disappointed. This book is not about Nazis, Hitler or the war. It is a coming of age novel, but one of a different sort.
The typical bildungsroman has an orphaned or motherless child at the center of it: David Copperfield, To Kill a Mocking Bird. At the center of this novel, instead, is the author himself: Philip Roth age seven, the "little one", sometimes behaving as if he is an orphan even while he is in the cradle of his family, as projected through a sixty year-long lens. I like to think that the Roth of reality has become less and less a child too as evidenced by the difference between his early and later work. It gives me hope for others like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, gifted writers who are still too trapped inside themselves to really connect with those who differ from them. It gives me hope for everybody actually, including me.
Having Roth's nine-year-old fictionalised "self" as a narrator is a mixed blessing. He gives his younger self far too much credit in terms of his understanding of current events, the political climate and adult relationships (young Philip's conflicted feelings about his neighbour Seldon are much more believable). On the plus side, the narrator's youth means that The Plot Against America is less phallocentric than much of Roth's work, with just one masturbation scene, one description of an erect penis and virtually none of his usual sex/gender role guff.
The problem is the workings of Roth's plot, his characterizations of historic Republican politicians and of the anti-war movement reminds me far too much of loony leftist fantasists like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. Maybe the title should have warned me. Given some of the descriptions of the "laconic" Lindbergh, his mastermind vice-president Wheeler and the publication date of 2004, I suspect we were supposed to see George W Bush and Dick Cheney in his depiction.
But there's a rather savage irony here. The most sinister governmental act in Roth's tale is the forced relocation of 245 Jewish families to the heartland. Ironic, because in reality, exactly at the time Roth sets this, a far vaster racially motivated forced relocation and internment, of Japanese-Americans, was occurring--enacted by Roth's hero, FDR. An injustice not alluded to in Roth's novel or even his historical "postscript" listing the real FDR's acts. Someone who really wanted to write a powerful indictment of tyranny should have pointed that event up, not ignored it. But that wouldn't have suited Roth's simplistic partisan fable.
The book starts out with a very believable and horrifying concept, Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States and signs a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The implications of the gradually fascist nature of his presidency affects an eight year old Jewish boy and his family. His cousin goes to Canada and enlists, only to have his leg shattered in Europe. His father has to move from an insurance job to manual labor when he refuses to relocate to Kentucky. Eventually American Jews are killed outright in a reworking of Kristallnatch in Detroit. Even though everything FDR does is lauded and the worst sinners are always Republicans, it does reflect a certain kind of polarization of the Left and Right.
However, the ending is a travesty. All of a sudden Lindbergh disappears -- Jewish plot? killed by the British? taken to Germany by the Germans? It really doesn't matter, because FDR is back in command and all is right with the world. If you believe that, then I have a bridge for sale. I was very, very disappointed in this book. Although there are some very wonderful passages, I would never recommend this book.
Roth's dystopian vision is somewhat unevenly rendered in The Plot Against America. He switches between narrating the alternate history with describing the effects it has on the Roth family in particular. I found the "historical" descriptions to be overly lengthy and sometimes superfluous, but I was drawn in to the accounts of the Roth's life. For me, Roth did not find a good balance between the history and the personal. I believe this comes from the narrative style that Roth chose to use in this novel. When writing the historical aspects, he tended to use several very long sentences, all in a row. I found this to be monotonous, as if the author was a history teacher droning on at the front of a class. After glancing through a few of his other books (this is the only one I've read completely), I can see this is not his usual style. I believe he was using the style to lull the reader into a false sense of security, rather like many of the citizens of the novel were. However, for me, I found that this style didn't work: I tended to skim these sections so that I could get to the "meat" of the story - the story of the Roth family.
I also thought that this could have been a much more chilling tale. The Jewish neighborhood of the novel is large and seemed to have been fairly isolated from some of the more shocking events he describes happening in other parts of the country. The Roth's hear about them but are mostly not personally affected by them. While this could have given the novel a sense of foreboding, it didn't, mainly because his narrative style (as described above) gave me a sense of distance from the action.
Overall, I thought The Plot Against America had an intriguing premise but was unevenly executed.
Quite honestly, if Roth had written the book with a sense of fiction immediately, it probably wouldn't have been as jarring and as horrifying but to really get into the groove of the historically accurate account of the late 30s early 40s where antisemitism was unfortunately growing in America and to see what could have happened, how intense this hatred could have grown with a leader beholden to Hitler made it seem like a realistic possible alternate ending.
The thing is, Americans have always unfortunately been fueled by a sense of famous popularity, which Lindbergh was for his flight prowess. In addition, we were still struggling quite a bit economically and many areas of the country were still seeing the after effects of the Great Depression. What Lindbergh does is create a surge in the notion of blind patriotism and nationalism. He wants every American citizen, including those who happen to be Jewish, to recognize that their allegiance should be first and foremost to America and not to their culture or race. Because of this, he manages to convince even rabbis that they should support him as he will keep America out of war.
All of this is, in fact, quite honestly what Lindbergh wanted in actuality. He just (thank heavens!) wasn't elected to destroy the bonds of the Jewish family and raise the antisemitism the country was already unfortunately experiencing. The US still made many mistakes when it came to WWII (Japanese internment camps being the largest one imo. and I still don't feel comfortable with the way we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) These are actions that America must bear with a heavy heart and hopefully history WILL do it's best to remember or it will possibly happen again.
But, we did need to be in the war to stop Germany and though I thought some aspects of the book preposterous (mainly the Lindbergh-Fuhrer baby conspiracy and war with Canada), I felt overall Roth has a grasp on the sense of history and the way it can flirt with surreality in a sort of metaphysical universe that is both shocking and devastating. You will learn from this book in many ways.
I leave you with one quote that I think sums up all that is inside this book. It is the quote I will take with me to my grave. I will remember it for the rest of my life.
pg. 296 "It's so heartbreaking, violence, when it's in a house-like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to see death but not the clothes in the tree."
Roth explores an interesting alternative history using focusing on a single Jewish family, its obstinate patriotic father, its subservient willing mother, and three very different young children who follow different paths in the light of the turmoil around them. Ultimately we see justice prevail, but not until families are broken up, people die unecessarily, and people learn hard lessons.
I enjoyed the story, although i was not wowed by the writing of Roth as I expected to be. This was my first Roth novel, and although towards the end I found sparks of his literary genius, it took me some time to get there. The plot is itself intriguing, and I am impressed by the research Roth did to base this story as much on reality as he could. But I was a little disappointed by the writing here. Compared to the previous book I read by E.L. Doctorow, I would take another Doctorow book before a Roth book.
But perhaps it is unfair to judge Roth based on this particular book. He is best known for his earlier novels including Portnoy's Complaint, and his more recent novel American Pastoral. For my next Roth novel it may make more sense to take on of these two as my ultimate gauge of his appeal.
Roth uses historical figures in this fiction; they speak and act in character, but the book is not about them. It is about growing up in fear of persecution, and how it stresses and strains people with that fear, even if that fear might not be justified by external events. There is a great pot of menace, comedy, colourful characters, politics and family fighting in this book. An excellent read if you are interested in depresssion-era or wartime USA or alternative history. It also has a really fascinating postscript which describes the actual history of the characters. Truth is stranger than fiction!
I must also note the absolute artistry of Roth’s dynamic and complex sentence structure. Like fine works of handicraft, Roth’s sentences, albeit long, are beautiful little works of art, carefully molded and shaped with just the right embellishment and detail, resulting in highly polished nuggets of prose that place the particular events, characters, situations, and emotions in clear and illuminated context.
Most of the book is believable, and the characters are interesting and likable. Unfortunately, parts of the book become repetitious. Roth's father repeatedly sees problems with the Lindbergh government that others don't see, and Roth, only a child, is constantly torn on who to believe. Once this pattern has been established, the reader doesn't need constant events to reestablish everyone's role in this drama. Roth could have shared just a few key events and had a more tight, engaging story.
This was such an easy and such a painful book to read. Easy, because it is so well-written and the narrative perspective is very clever; casting a child as the narrator magnifies the sense of bemusement for a community that did not expect to become the target of state-sanctioned racism. The plot took a long time to reach its boiling point, which worked very well because I wasn’t sure if I was just being drawn into a sense of Jewish paranoia, or if there really were anti-Semitic forces at work in government.
I’ve never been a particular fan of ‘alternative-history’ books, but I thought this was very well executed, and I would highly recommend it.
Listen to this quote from the book: "How long will the American people stand for this treachery perpetrated by their elected president? How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and flag?" I get enough of this nonsense in my daily newspaper (the Washington Post) without suffering through the same in what is supposed to be my leisure reading. If you like to read books by Michael Moore and James Carville, then this book should be right up your alley. If you were looking for an interesting tale of alternative history, without the political bashing that seems so prevalent nowadays, then I advise you look elsewhere.