by Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin


391pp/$26.00/October 2004

The Plot Against America

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

"It can't happen here," is one of the great lies people tell themselves.  Jews told themselves that in Germany as the Nazis began to systematically murder them.  Armenians told themselves that as the Turks came to massacre them in 1915.  It is this sense of belonging by a minority group which Philip Roth explores in his alternate history The Plot Against America.

The story is told from the point of view of a fictionalized Philip Roth, surrounded by fictionalized versions of his own family growing up in Newark, New Jersey in the 1930s and 40s.  When Charles Lindbergh decides to run against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, the tradition of presidents serving only two terms as well as the idea that "it can't happen here" as espoused by Newark's Rabbi Bengelsdorf, help propel Lindbergh, who was known to be sympathetic to the Nazis, into the White House on a peace platform.

Following Lindbergh's election, the United States moves further and further to the right and incidents reminiscent of those as the Nazis were beginning to consolidate power in Germany begin to occur.  These range from attacks on Jews in rural Kentucky to the establishment of government programs which outwardly are to help Americanize various ethnic groups but also have the tendency to diminish those groups' electoral powers as well as indoctrinate them into the world Lindbergh and his supporters desire to see.

Although the book describes Charles Lindbergh's attacks against the Jews, it is about any demogogue's attacks against any minority, whether by reason of religion, gender, sexual preference, or skin color.  Roth is on record as denying that the book is a response to the current administration's attacks on various minorities, whether due to sexual preference or ethnic background, yet there are strong and obvious parallels between Lindbergh's actions and those of the Bush administration.  Of course, those reading the book will be divided into those who see these parallels (represented in the book by Roth's father) and those who feel that there aren't parallels (the "it can't happen here" crowd, as represented by Roth's brother in the book).

As long as the situation continues to deteriorate for the Roth families and other Jews, Roth does an excellent job in creating a world which never happened, but, perhaps, could have.  The book begins to fall apart when Roth brings in a deus ex machina to launch a coup and return the world of The Plot Against America to a world more similar to our own.  Simultaneously, Roth appears to try to rehabilitate the Lindbergh of the novel, as well as his historical analog, by providing a reason for Lindbergh's anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi stand.

It is clear that Roth does not have a great deal of familiarity with alternate history, nevertheless, his abilities as a novelist overcome most of his inexperience with the genre.  The Plot Against America is well-researched and provides an intriguing, if disheartening, view of America through the eyes of a seven-year old as his family is torn apart and rebuilt.  Despite the weak ending, The Plot Against America is a well-written novel which, despite the author's assertions, has a very direct message for contemporary America.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

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