Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

A time-tested source of story ideas is the alternate history, which allows a writer to ask intriguing "what if" questions. What would our world be like if the Roman Empire had never fallen? If the Berlin Wall still stood? If Leonardo Da Vinci had died at birth?

Novels that ask such sweeping geo- and sociopolitical questions usually investigate these hypotheticals on the global stage. Philip Roth adopts a more intimate response to his query: What if Charles Lindbergh ran against Roosevelt in 1940 on a single-themed platform wherein he promised to keep America out of the European War if elected . . . and what if he won?

Some repercussions of such a change to our known timeline are readily foreseen. If the new president signed non-aggression pacts with Germany and Japan, Pearl Harbor might never have been bombed. D-Day may never have transpired. Tens and hundreds of thousands of young American men might never have gone overseas to their deaths, but also to victory. The world would be a very different place today, as would America's place in it.

In The Plot Against America, Roth distills this vast scenario down to the level of one Jewish suburb of Newark, and primarily to a single family, the Roths, who are loosely modeled on the author's family. He creates a loving family portrait of a family struggling to survive when everything they've come to believe in starts crumbling around them.

The historical Lindbergh is a cultural American icon, especially well known for two events: his solo Atlantic crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis, and the kidnapping and murder of his young son. Less familiar, perhaps, were his isolationist political views and reported sympathy with the Nazi government. Some of his public comments were interpreted as anti-Semitic.

After Lindbergh takes power, life quickly changes for some in America. While prejudice against Jews in the U.S. was a matter of course, it becomes thinly veiled government policy. The new government establishes programs to "re-educate" and assimilate the Jewish youth. Families are relocated to isolated rural regions of the country to break up close-knit Jewish communities, thereby disrupting their block voting power. The Office of American Absorption, whose supposed goal is to turn the Jews into "real Americans," oversees these changes, and many fear that their program is just a prelude to more sinister action against American Jews.

The Roths predict these changes with growing dread, and rail at their inability to avoid the worse things they see ahead. Other families in their community escape to Canada, but patriarch Herman Roth has too much faith in his country to abandon it. By the time his faith is destroyed, it's too late.

A Roth cousin, unwilling and unable to turn his back on what is going on overseas, enlists in the Canadian armed forces and returns from the European campaign with a life-altering wound. Herman's sister-in-law becomes romantically involved with a rabbi who has been conscripted by the Lindbergh campaign to help make the regime's policies more palatable to the non-Jewish population. Regardless of his personal beliefs, the rabbi's passionate speeches in favor of the presidential candidate are not meant to convince his own people. The Roths understand that he is being used to tacitly grant permission to the "goyim" to support Lindbergh.

While these huge changes are transpiring around them, life within the Roth household goes on. Philip, the narrator, and his brother endure the trials and tribulations of youth coming of age during any era. The problems of the larger world seem remote to Philip. More imminent are his conflicts at school, in the community, his problems with the tedious and clingy boy who lives downstairs and the amputee cousin who moves in with them.

The Lindbergh situation again insinuates itself into the family after Philip's brother spends a summer on Kentucky farm, where he is immersed in the lives of Christian families who are sympathetic to the new government. Sandy returns with questions about his parents' strongly held beliefs, not only about the political climate but their religion.

Stories of random and organized violence against Jews reach their ears through the gossip mill, and via the radio. Walter Winchell, a Jewish radio reporter, rages against the current regime, the last voice of rational thought in America according to Herman Roth, until the government begins to clamp down on Winchell's diatribes.

The government claims that Hitler seeks only to stop the spread of Communism in Europe. Members of the Nazi regime are welcomed to the American capitol with open arms, much to the dismay of many citizens. Not the majority, however. Lindbergh and his supporters cleverly manipulate the populace into supporting his platform, capitalizing on a certain degree of blind hero worship that allows them to proceed down a slippery slope into hazardous territory. By claiming to know what is right for the country, Lindbergh encourages Americans to allow limits to be placed on certain of their citizens, and tricks the populace into voluntarily surrendering some of its rights.

How much-or how little-would it take for America to turn into a fascist state under the wrong circumstances? The Plot Against America may be subtly subversive. Readers might be tempted to read it as an allegory for the current American political situation. Roth demonstrates how the zealousness of one powerful man can infect the majority of the population and allow beliefs and actions that were once deemed inappropriate to ferment and become expressed. Roth never makes this connection directly-he leaves it to individual readers to do so, and the book can be enjoyed without reading more into it than appears on the surface.

While this may all sound like heavy business, the book is not without its lighter moments, especially those dealing with young Philip's antics. He only vaguely understands what is going on around him, and is mostly concerned about what is happening with his parents and his brother. To him the Lindbergh controversy is represented by a few stamps in his collection featuring the aviator that make him feel vaguely guilty, probably because his brother has found it necessary to hide sketches he'd made of the new president in earlier, kinder times.

For a writer to adopt historical figures as pivotal characters in a work of fiction, and manipulate them into performing deeds they never did in life is risky business. Many regard Lindbergh as a heroic figure, so by focusing on of his less attractive characteristics (the real Lindbergh is recorded saying that the British and the Jews were trying to force America into a foreign war), Roth might alienate some readers. He also co-opts such figures as Fiorello La Guardia, Montana senator Burton Wheeler-who becomes Lindbergh's vice president-and Henry Ford. To make sure readers are clear about what is fiction, what is real, and what is extrapolation-a tenuous territory between the two-Roth includes a postscript to the reader entitled "A True Chronology of the Major Figures," along with other supporting documentation.

In the end, Roth rehabilitates his fictional Lindbergh, and also demonstrates the resilience of our known history by returning our past to the very tracks from which he derailed it. The question, though, is not whether the country can recover from these perturbations, but rather whether the Roth family can. They have been put through several emotional wringers. Herman had to give up his longtime job or face relocation. The once strong Jewish community that provided strength and fellowship to the family has been broken up and diluted. Family members have turned against each other. Faith-in people, in ideals, in government, in country-has been diminished or lost. This family's despair reflects what happened to the country, but by reducing it to a small scale, Roth makes it personal, compelling and comprehensible.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.