Friday, October 29, 2004

Book Review: The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

In "The Plot Against America" Philip Roth asks the question "What if Charles Lindbergh, instead of FDR, was elected to the Presidency in 1940?" After Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic flight, and after his child was kidnapped and later found dead, Charles Lindbergh began speaking out about the social problem that Jews are for America and for other nations. He was lauded by Nazi Germany, and was known as an anti-Semite by the Jewish population of America. When the Republican Party could not come to a consensus on whom to nominate to run against Roosevelt, and after four failed votes, Charles Lindbergh came into the Convention like a conquering hero and was nearly unanimously nominated. A week before this action, however, Lindbergh had made an anti-Semitic speech, and with the nomination, many Jews are fearful for the future. Lindbergh's main campaign platform is peace. He intends on keeping the United States out of World War II, and on this platform he wins in a landslide. Shortly after taking office he signs peace treaties with Hitler and with Japan and the United States can do nothing but watch as Nazi Germany begins to take over Europe.

All of the political details that shape the world are just to get the reader in the door and to open the book. It is one of the best ideas for a book, especially one written by Roth, which I have heard of. There could be an excellent political novel with this material, but this is all scenery. The story of "The Plot Against America" is told by 7 year old Philip Roth. This novel is told as if it were a real historical event and we its impact on the Roth family (the author uses the real names of his family). We see the paranoia of Roth's father regarding Lindbergh, whom he considers a Hitler in the making, and how that paranoia and fear only grows and starts to divide the family as Lindbergh's presidency continues. There is a program put into place in which a child (of a certain age) is taken out of the city and spends a summer in a rural community. Philip's older brother is one such child, and when he comes back home Sandy is heavily pro-Lindbergh and is highly critical of the fears of the Jews (including his father). This further divides the family. It is through the lens of the Roth family that the effect of the Lindbergh presidency and the changes it begins to bring to the country and to the Jewish population.

While this is not the novel I had expected, this is an excellent novel. Philip Roth is one of America's masters and he has proved it time and time again. "The Plot Against America" is no exception. Like "American Pastoral", the larger social issues of the novel are told through the experiences of a family. We get a sense of the growing fear of the Jewish population of America, even as riots begin to break out and America experiences its own Kristallnacht. We get a sense of what it may have been like in the early days as the Nazis were first beginning to rise to power and first starting to stretch out and persecute the Jews. This sense is tempered by American Democracy and how much more difficult it would be to have a full fledged fascist regime in this country; and yet, we also see how easy it is to begin. The one real flaw of this novel is the ending. There is no true resolution and (without giving away the ending), the reader does not quite get the sense of the lasting impact of Lindbergh's policies. The ending feels rushed, and unsatisfying. The journey Roth takes us on to get to that ending, however, is highly satisfying.

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