Imagine if aviator Charles Lindbergh, America's golden boy and a Nazi sympathizer, had run for president against FDR in 1940, and won. The Japanese might not have attacked Pearl Harbor; the United States might not have joined the Allies in the fight against fascism in Europe and Asia. But what would have been the fate of American Jews?That is the tantalizing premise of The Plot Against America, the compelling new novel by that provocateur of American letters, Philip Roth.
Roth has crossed the line of realism before, in such novels as The Ghost Writer and The Breast, but what makes this literary outing so fascinating is that he has written it in the form of a memoir, as if it's not fiction at all. Philip Roth, the child, is the narrator of this harrowing story, the firsthand witness to the frightening changes that accompany the Lindbergh presidency. The Roths live in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Herman is an insurance agent; his wife Bess is a conscientious housewife. They are second-generation Americans, one generation removed from the immigrant world of cold-water tenements. Like most Jews at the time, they are rabid supporters of the progressive Franklin Roosevelt, who has pulled the floundering country up by its bootstraps with his New Deal. Herman and Bess are also unabashed patriots, instilling in Philip and his older brother, Sandy, the ideals of American democracy.
So when Charles Lindbergh becomes the Republican candidate for president, they hope that the common sense of the electorate will prevail. True, Lindbergh is an American hero, but he is also an admirer of Adolph Hitler, having traveled to Germany to meet with the Fuhrer numerous times. But, despite Roosevelt's broad popularity at the start of the campaign, the charismatic Lindbergh taps into the American isolationist streak and wins by a landslide. The Roths try to go on with everyday life as if nothing has changed, but slowly their world is turned upside down. On a trip to Washington, D.C., they get their first taste of Lindbergh era anti-Semitism when they are summarily asked to leave their hotel. Herman's nephew, Alvin, runs off to Canada to join the forces fighting in Europe and returns home minus a leg. But the biggest family calamity comes when Bess' spinster sister, Evelyn, marries a bigwig rabbi who believes that appeasing Lindbergh is the best solution. Herman stubbornly refuses to move the family to Canada, even after he is forced to quit his job rather than be relocated as part of an Office of American Absorption program, also spearheaded by Evelyn's rabbi husband. Eventually, all hell breaks loose when Walter Winchell, the Jewish gossip columnist who has the most popular radio show in America, declares his candidacy against Lindbergh. Long-simmering violence erupts against Jewish communities around the country.
All of this "history" is siphoned through the eyes of young Philip, who is six when the story begins and nine when it ends. He is a precocious child, as such an observer must be, but also endearingly callow. Often more concerned with the fate of his stamp collection (which includes a prized Spirit of St. Louis commemorative that he keeps well hidden from his parents) than with the deterioration of his nuclear family, Philip slowly comes to recognize that, as a Jew, he has become a second-class citizen in his native land.
Roth, now 71, deftly recalls the details of his wartime childhood, albeit within a fictional scenario. The memoir aspect of the narrative is so painstakingly real that at times it is easy to forget that Lindbergh never became president and none of this actually happened. It is probably no accident that Roth has written this searing account of an America torn apart by partisan ideologies at a time when American politics are so divisive and mistrust of certain groups percolates beneath the surface of our lives. It is not hard to read The Plot Against America as an admonition of what could be, rather than mere speculation on what might have been.