21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Counter-factual history, thankfully,
This review is from: The Plot Against America (Paperback)
This is a remarkably convincing counter-factual history of the United States between 1940 and 1942 and how it impacted on the seven to nine year old boy who was Philip Roth at the time. In that version of history, the 1940 presidential election was won by the American folk-hero and aviator Charles Lindbergh on a programme of keeping the United States out of the war against Hitler into which Roosevelt was thought to be steering the country. Lindbergh subsequently met Hitler in Iceland to seal American neutrality. That fact made many Jews, including Philip's father, accuse Lindbergh of being an antisemitic fascist, and that in turn made those Americans who wanted to keep out of the war accuse the Jews of wanting to drag America into it, and fanned antisemitic feelings to such an extent that Jews came to feel very insecure.
In actual history, Lindbergh was indeed something of an admirer of Hitler and had been awarded a decoration by him, and he was a prominent member of the America First Committee, founded to oppose Roosevelt's interventionist polices and to promote American isolationism. Historically also Lindbergh had been disturbed by the influence of Jews in the media, and he did single out the Jews as a pressure group trying to push America into the war.
In the novel, Lindbergh's antisemitic policies are much subtler than Hitler's: he simply sponsors programmes to make them 'more American' by inducing them to move out of the strongly Jewish areas on the East coast into the Mid-West. A prominent Jewish rabbi is a confidant and a regular visitor to the White House, and he defends the President against the charge of being antisemitic; the press carries a letter from Mrs Lindbergh to the rabbi in which the First Lady pays tribute to the great spiritual strength of the Jewish people. Towards the end of the novel we find an ingenious, if rather far-fetched, invention which explains this moderation, and which it would be a spoiler to reveal in this review. In any case, Lindbergh's more strident Jewish opponents, most prominent among them the journalist and broadcaster Walter Winchell, are not convinced. (The novel is full of American public figures who really existed). Nor must I reveal the way in which the author eventually brings the novel to a point where the real history we know can be resumed (which, incidentally, forces Roth to misdate Pearl Harbour).
But before American history is 'back on track', we do see an America in which the sense of menace is growing and in which Jews do indeed come to be in deadly peril, with pogroms, riots, and murders. And one feels it could really have happened like this.
Against this background we have the life of the child Philip, in which he has many other things to think about than the political situation which so involves his parents and the older members of his family. The sense of danger does get through to him, of course, but at times we are as much involved in the importance of his stamp-collection, his relationship with his elder brother and his cousin, the tricks he gets up to with a school friend etc. So although this is primarily a political novel, it is at the same time a novel about childhood preoccupations, and a compelling read on both scores.