“I don’t like to read books. They muss up my mind. History is more or less bunk.”
- Henry Ford
If you don’t know the basics of the plot, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a “what if” novel that describes an America where FDR is defeated by the isolationist Republican’s candidate, Charles Lindbergh, and America is kept out of WWII. The American aviation hero was known to be anti-Semitic, as was our man Henry Ford, quoted above. (Anybody want to buy my truck?) The author does include historical notes as an epilogue that help to sort out what is fact and what is fiction, and I am sure that every bit of it is hotly contested in some corner of the internet.
The story is told from the point of view of an 8-9 year old Philip Roth. Virtually all of the characters in the book are real. Besides the author’s family, the author includes many contemporary local and national leaders. As the story unfolds, the Jewish community of Newark becomes increasingly alarmed as their most paranoid expectations of an anti-Semitic President begin to be realized, and it appears that Lindbergh is prepared to side with Hitler. The “pro-Nazi Lindbergh” story line is actually much more subtle than it seems when read on the jacket cover. It’s presented as a slow erosion of democracy and freedoms, with lots of political double-speak supporting the Republican actions. Which makes it so much more believable. It really seems like “this could have happened”. I didn’t sleep for three or four days as I pounded out this book to see how things would play out – since we are not, in fact, speaking German right now.
The otherwise theoretical effects of creeping fascism and anti-Semitism are personalized through the perspective of the Roth Family and their immediate neighbors. However, the 8-9 year old Philip may not be a 100% reliable narrator, since he was a child, after all, and the story is his “remembrance” as an old man. Also, the way he perceives the world around him, like all children, is shaped through the actions of the adults closest to him. And their actions are not necessarily consistent over time. Some reviewers have complained about the ending. Without giving too much away, some chance of a mild reprieve is given to Lindbergh. Although, the adult telling Philip the “truth” is implicated in the “plot” and is therefore unreliable as well.
Roth has indicated in interviews that the novel should not be treated as a roman à clef for our current administration. However, you really can’t help but make some comparisons. Lindbergh jets into speaking engagements and repeats the same 6 lines of “speech” at each stop in his aviator suit. And the crowd goes wild for his simple explanations and no-nonsense approach. No, that doesn’t sound like anyone I know. Creeping fascism? Hmm, “you’re with us or against us”, “why do you hate our troops”, repression under the guise of religion, half of high-schoolers believing that the press should “get government approval” before printing – no that doesn’t sound like we’re slowly losing our democratic ideals.
It’s an impressive piece of writing, it’s a gripping story, and it makes you think about the world around you. I read a lot of hype about this book, but I wasn’t sure that I found the “Nazis in America” thing very promising. I finally decided to pick this book up after reading Neal Pollack’s brief review (#4). His take home message: “An important book in an age when books aren’t important.” Amen to that. Also, it will make you sad that you can’t vote for Fiorello LaGuardia.