The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Some said Philip Roth is the new messiah of modern writers. Philip Roth is overrated, said others.
So I read a couple of Roth's books, Exit Ghost and Everyman. With only those to go on, to me, Roth seemed like your typical aging curmudgeon. Nothing special, just an old man venting through literature his disgruntled annoyance at no longer being able to get an erection. I was ready to call it quits on him, but felt like maybe I should try one more.
So I read The Plot Against America. Boy, am I glad I did. What a joy!
Indeed, I enjoyed everything about this "what if", coming-of-age tale where horrors, both real and imagined, feed into and upon the novel's building tension. Horrors and the heart of a child. Childhood and the heart of a family. This is war vs. peace. The good, the bad and all that falls in between.
This is the story of a young Jewish boy growing up as American as can be in the New Jersey suburbs of the early 1940s. Germany is at war with the world. Hitler and his Nazis are at war with the Jews. President Roosevelt is campaigning for a 3rd term in office.
Then Roth throws a monkey wrench into the works, presenting an alternative universe where, instead of facing off with and defeating Wendell Willkie, FDR is confronted with and defeated by the intensely popular Charles Lindbergh. With their flyboy hero at America's helm, the isolationist Republicans as well as the Nazis themselves can use Lindbergh as a tool to meet their ends.
Aside from some fiddling with the Lindbergh baby history, that's about where the historical fiction ends. Lindbergh was an isolationist. He did occasionally let slip with an antisemitic remark. He did receive a medal from Goring on behalf of Hitler, and he did refuse to give it up. FDR did believe Charles Lindbergh to be a Nazi. Lindbergh's wife did privately wonder in her diary what the *bleeep!* her Swedish, Arian husband was thinking when he spouted anti Jewish nonsense.
There's so very much more that truly did happen, whether you believe it or not, which Roth includes in his novel, but I won't spoil the glorious tapestry that lavishly drapes the background of what is actually Philip Roth's childhood autobiography, at least a fictionalized recounting.
Much of The Plot Against America feels just like the movie Stand By Me. Boys being boys, having fun, experiencing life through youthful eyes, making mountains out of mole hills, and nearly getting buried beneath the true mountains. As a coming-of-age tale, you'll find few finer. Prior to reading this, I would've described Roth's work as Vonnegut-esque but without the humor. Here though, the humor - on occasions a bit dark - is in full throat and fine form. I love nothing more than connecting with human behavior via the stories of our interconnect childhoods. We were all young once and it is a pleasure to share that common ground. Roth shares his suburban American-Jewish upbringing at the height of Jewish persecution in the modern age and it is a joy to read.
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