Famous author unravels ‘Plot’

Angela S. Allan

“The Plot Against America” has nothing to do with the war on terror, the 2000 election, or even Dr. Atkins making Americans everywhere carb-free crazy.

Philip Roth, easily one of America’s best living writers, has scored again with his alternate history novel set during World War II.

The premise is that Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviation hero, runs for president against Roosevelt in 1940 and wins.

Lindbergh, a notorious isolationist who was publicly criticized by Roosevelt for anti-Semitic comments in reality, campaigns: “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War.” Indeed, Lindbergh does keep America out of war – but by reaching an “understanding” with the Nazis themselves.

Yet what separates Philip Roth from other alternate history writers is his attention to humanity instead of all plot.

Unlike Harry Turtledove’s imaginative “Guns of the South,” “The Plot Against America” focuses very little on the marquee historical personages and instead, settles on the Roths, the author’s family re-imagined in the time of crisis. Seven-year-old Philip narrates the story, a boy with a paranoid imagination, surrounded by a paranoid Jewish community.

However, it’s Roth’s gift for combining the “bigger picture” with engrossing characters that makes “The Plot Against America” a success.

Readers can surely identify with the concept of fear in today’s political landscape, and Roth is quick to analyze the effects of this on his family.

A vacation to Washington D.C., becomes a disastrous exposition in anti-Semitism, while Herman, Philip’s father, tries desperately to force his family to enjoy themselves in the city.

Alvin, Philip’s cousin, returns to the family after running away to join the Canadian Army to fight the Nazis, but without cost: bitter and one leg less, Alvin is filled with rage and grief, later contributing to one of many dramatic apexes.

At the same time, the novel is deeply disturbing, especially through the eyes of young Philip – the self-described “good child” of the family.

His older brother, Sandy, joins one of the Lindbergh Administration’s programs, “Just Folks,” in which Jewish youth are integrated into summer farm work – in Christian homes.

It is not without drama or suspense, certainly, yet Roth manages to find a delicate blend of compassion and humor to accent the story of a family, as well as that of a nation.

“The Plot Against America” reads remarkably well, mainly because Roth writes first person in a beautifully easy, conversational narrative.

It is far easier to empathize with the struggles of the family, both political and domestic, than the government officials. In fact, the story reads as if the entire situation could very well be real until the second to last chapter.

Even then, incredulous as it sounds, Roth pulls out an ingenious plot twist near the novel’s end that is sure to delight any Alternate History fan.

However, it’s clear that Roth has done his research – a postscript accompanies the book outlining the true historical events and chronologies of real “characters” used in the story.

The pacing of the novel does, however, slightly resemble his Pulitzer Prize winning “American Pastoral,” but the book is a phenomenally fast and relevant read.

Critics of Roth will find his usual misogyny is nowhere in sight, and “vulgarity” is lacking. Mrs. Roth and neighbor Mrs. Wishnow are among his most most sympathetic characters.  The narrative of young Philip accents the innocence destroyed, not by war in Europe or Asia, but on the very streets of Newark, N.J., and the rest of America.

The book is easily enjoyable, as almost all of Philip Roth’s books are; if not for the aspects of Alternate History, it is a brilliant portrait of a family and society gripped by fear, as Roosevelt so eloquently said, of fear itself.