Having enthusiastically reviewed Roth’s breakthrough classic, I thought it would be interesting to try a novel from the other end of his career. The Plot Against America is an alternative history novel, that asks what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh had been the republican candidate for the US Presidency in 1940, and had been elected on a wave of anti-war sentiment.
The election of Donald Trump as the 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows that this scenario is not as far fetched as might originally be thought – Lindbergh was a national hero for his solo cross-Atlantic flight (note that he wasn’t the first person to fly across the Atlantic – just the first person to do it solo. Bit like being the first left-handed man on the moon. Alcock and Brown had made the flight non-stop eight years earlier, but they were British so that didn’t really count!).
The novel is rooted in genuine history, as all alternative history novels really have to be. Lindbergh had praised Hitler, supported and campaigned for the America First party, and spoken against American intervention in the Second World War. He had also made openly anti-semitic remarks, claiming the ‘Jewish race’ were behind attempts to force American involvement in the war.
From this point the narrative has Lindbergh elected President on a strong tide of popular support from the South. Henry Ford is appointed as Secretary of the Interior. He signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, whose expansionist plans are thereby given tacit approval. The narrative is told from the perspective of a young Philip Roth, and it is clear that many of his reactions are drawn from memories of pre-War America. The novel is particularly strong on what it must be like to be made to feel a stranger in one’s own home. Narrator Roth for example is puzzled by the calls for the Jewish people to be given a home in the Middle East – America is his home. There was a special resonance to these sections of the novel given the Brexit vote, which has left millions of Europeans residents in the UK feeling like unwanted aliens.
The novel has a authenticity that many alternative histories lack. Not all Jewish people’s in Lindbergh’s America reject his insidious and sinister attempts to undermine Jewish communities. A government act relocating Jewish families to neighbourhoods is seen as the first step in a process that will lead to an America version of the brutality being exacted on European Jews in the early 1940’s. Many members of the Jewish community move to Canada. Street violence against Jews steadily ramps up, and any public protests against the new act are met with censorship and violence.
At this point if asked I would have predicted that the novel would follow this path, with the situation getting gradually darker for the Roth family, with either them ending up in a prison camp, or in Canada. But Roth backs away from this depressing scenario, even though it is one he has introduced. Instead, in a stunning example of deus ex machine, Lindbergh’s personal plane goes missing. He is simply killed off, and the narrator tells us that the novel’s events were twenty or thirty years in the past, and the remainder of the twentieth century played out largely as we know it. ‘The Plot Against America’ was not, it transpires, Lindbergh’s presidency – it is never clear whether he genuinely had plans to exterminate the Jewish people of America – but the events that follow his disappearance. When German State Radio discloses ‘evidence’ that Lindbergh’s disappearance, as well as the kidnapping of his son, were part of a Jewish conspiracy to take control of the American government, the subsequent anti-semitic rioting provides an excuse for Vice President Wheeler and Secretary Ford to arrest prominent Jewish citizens. This coup is stopped when the missing President’s wife, Anne, intervenes. Former president Roosevelt is re-elected, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour, America enters the war, and history is back on track.
I can understand Roth’s reluctance to go too far down the road of an America holocaust, but at the same time his ending, with Lindbergh’s sudden disappearance, is all too convenient. Instead of making the point, as he originally appeared to have intended, that history could so very easily have been very different from the route it actually took, in having Lindbergh swatted casually from the sky he appears to be saying that some outcomes in history are unavoidable and inevitable, and that it will all work out in the end.
‘The Plot Against America’ is well written, finely paced, and thoughtful. Is it as dynamic and readable as his earlier work – well, no, not if ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ is anything to go by.