Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Plot Against America

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth writes an alternate history to WWII in which, instead of going to war, America doesn't re-elect Franklin Roosevelt but instead Charles Lindberg, who becomes an ally of Hitler.

The story is told from the perspective of a young, Jewish boy in Newark whose parents view with immediate suspicion the change in leadership and the direction of the country. A family vacation to DC reveals the first public expressions of anti-semitism the family faces and soon after the oldest son is recruited to be part of a program to send young Jewish boys to the "heartland" to work on farms. He returns with less respect for his parents and deeply ingrained with the lessons he learned in "real America."

Mr. Mawhinney owned not just one farm but three--the lesser two rented to tenants - land that had been in his family going back nearly to the days of Daniel Boone, and my father owned nothing more impressive than a six-year-old car. Mr. Mawhinney could saddle a horse, drive a tractor, operate a thresher, ride a fertilizer drill, work a field as easily with a team of mules as with a team of oxen; he could rotate crops and manage hired men, both while and Negro; he could repair tools, sharpen plow points and mowers, put up fences, string barbed wire, raise chickens, dip sheep, de-horn cattle, slaughter pigs, smoke bacon, sugar-cure ham- and he had raised watermelons that were the sweetest and juiciest Sandy had ever eaten.

The anti-semitism grows stronger and stronger until eventually the US experiences something quite similar to Kristallnacht.

What Roth's book illustrates is how easily compliancy can lead to vast human rights violations. Published in 2004, it seems quite likely that the book was influenced by the liberties of the Bush administration, although I haven't read anything by Roth himself about that. For me, what really struck home, after some additional research, was the untold story of Charles Linderberg and other notable historical figures like Henry Ford, who are no less than national icons and symbols of all that is good about American ingenuity and capitalism, but were both anti-semites and used a fair amount of their political capital to promote that agenda. (There's a very helpful postscript in the paperback version that includes a "note to the Reader" and a "A True Chronology of the Major Figures" that provides more information.) Many of the hateful comments made by those characters in the book are taken directly from public speeches made by those men. (The postscripts reveals that history has literally been re-written in which re-publications of Lindberg's journals omit anti-semitical statements.)

Roth seems determined to expose Linderberg and Ford for the contributions of hate they added to the political and social atmosphere and I think that's a worthwhile endeavor. Ignoring their faults does a disservice to people who work for peace and, well, shows us that history is often a lie. And, of course, it is.

Aside from providing a lot of fodder for thought, the book is very entertaining and readable, as almost all of Roth's work is. I've never been disappointed by him with the exception of his 1971 Our Gang, which I think I just didn't have the historical perspective to appreciate. If you've never read Roth before, I'd suggest Goodbye, Columbus, which is one of my favorites - but, I certainly haven't read all of his stuff and would appreciate your suggestions if you have!

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