Book Review: The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 391 pages.
Is there anything left to be said about the Holocaust experience? The Plot Against America will convince you that we can still learn more about this inexplicable, horrific era in human history. The Plot Against America is, quite simply, a book that should be read by every American Jew who wants to understand what might have happened to American Jews in the twentieth century if certain things had gone differently.
Based on memories of Roth’s own family and his experiences growing up, The Plot Against America portrays a Jewish family named Roth with two sons, Sandy and Philip, who live in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Newark in the 1940s. In Roth’s imagined history, the American hero and pilot Charles Lindbergh becomes president during a wave of anti-interventionist and anti-Semitic sentiment. Following Lindbergh’s successful campaign, the Roths take a trip to Washington D.C. and encounter anti-Semitism at their hotel, a restaurant and at historical sites.
The Roths’ older son, Sandy, is enticed into a volunteer program in which he lives with a Kentucky farm family. The program, ostensibly aimed at “introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life,” actually is intended to both isolate and reeducate Jews. From an interfaith family’s perspective, The Plot Against America is particularly interesting in its portrayal of Sandy’s experience on the Kentucky farm. He goes there against his parents’ wishes, a shy, bookish young boy with a talent for drawing. He returns a robust and healthy young man with a strong admiration for his Kentucky host family, including their Christianity.
The father, Herman, finds that a supposed job “promotion” is actually a program to “enrich . . . Americanness” by moving Jews out of their Jewish neighborhoods and scattering them throughout the country, where they will be systematically absorbed into mainstream culture. As the situation for Jews deteriorates, the muckraking Jewish columnist Walter Winchell stands up to Lindbergh and announces his own candidacy for president, with disastrous results.
All of these events are viewed through the eyes of the younger son, Philip, and told in his voice both as an adolescent and as an adult looking back on what unfolded. Philip, the narrator, recalls how he came to see his parents as more than parents: in a memorable passage the young Philip's idea of his mother undergoes a "startling change"--he realizes that she is "a fellow creature," and he is "shocked by the revelation . . .” It’s these insights, as well as Roth’s signature humor, that particularly carry the story.
Other characters are believable and richly imagined as well--Aunt Evelyn, who falls under the spell of a Jewish rabbi co-opted by the Lindbergh administration; Alvin, the cousin who goes to Canada so he can fight the Nazis and returns home with part of his leg missing; Seldon Wishnow, a neighbor’s child whose vulnerability and hero-worship of Philip leads to unfortunate consequences; and Mr. Mawhinney, the Kentucky farmer who hosted Sandy and who goes to Seldon’s aid when his mother is killed in an anti-Semitic riot.
The book isn’t perfect; at times it suffers from structural choppiness as Roth switches back and forth from pseudo-historical detail to storyline. Other writers, such as E. L. Doctorow, have attempted to blend history and fiction; it’s always a challenge. But Roth carries it off convincingly and compellingly, despite the occasional choppiness. The ending is the weakest part of the book--it feels rushed, as if Roth had a page limit and suddenly realized he had to tie up loose ends. As a result, it feels somewhat implausible. But when Roth focuses on the story, he’s got a powerful one to tell.
Whether read as a gripping page-turner, an indictment of the current political administration or a reminder that it can happen here, The Plot Against America forces us to consider how easy it is to accept small losses and indignities and become accustomed to curtailments of our freedom until we finally discover that we have lost significant liberties.