Genre: Alternate History
Narrative Style: First person, chronological
Synopsis: In Roth’s alternative America, Roosevelt doesn’t win his unprecedented third term in 1940, instead heroic aviator and rampant isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins and immediately signs an understanding with Adolf Hitler and refuses to get involved with the war in Europe. He then embarks on a program of policies which will change the future for America’s Jews. The Roth family live in New Jersey in a Jewish neighbourhood and they immediately find themselves on the sharp end of a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution.
Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read some Roth for a while. He has been on the long list of greats that I need to read for a long time. I watched the mini-series of The Plot Against America last year and really enjoyed it so when it came up on my kindle deals email I jumped at the chance to read it.
This is the fourth alternate history book based on the second world war in some way that I’ve read and it is easily the best, probably because it was the most believable. Unlike the others, this isn’t a story of spies or policemen (like Fatherland by Robert Harris or Dominion by C. J. Sansom) but the story of an ordinary family trying to cope with the changes to their world. You could say The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is about ordinary people but it is too strange to be a realistic read. It also helped me to understand why this is a topic that novelists – and readers – seem drawn to. The ultimate in what if questions, it helps us to understand what might have happened in order to ensure that we never let it happen again.
The novel starts slowly. We get to know the Roths and their life. They are expectant of a Roosevelt win. Their elder son is a keen artist and has many drawings of Lindbergh of whom he is a great admirer. Philip, the younger son, is a keen collector of stamps. They are living a fairly ordinary life. They are not rich, they work hard but they have a small amount of happiness. The way this changes is slow and sometime subtle but no less sinister for that. In fact, it allows Lindbergh’s supporters to ignore the complaints and continue in their support of the president.
The master class policy in this case is the setting up of the “Just Folks” scheme, a part of the Office of American Absorption which sees Jewish children sent away to stay with Christian families for “Apprenticeships”. The Roth family view this as a sinister attempt by the government to drive Jewish families apart but some view it – including the powerful Rabbi, Bengelsdorf – as a positive way for middle America to learn that Jewish people are just like them. It is this duality that I found particularly disturbing – that the clear discrimination of the Jewish people was turned around by the government and its supporters as nothing of the sort. It was like two roads which had been running next to each other and which start to move further and further away from each other until the two viewpoints are poles apart and completely irreconcilable. And it works. When Sandy is sent away for the summer to work on a tobacco farm, he returns having absorbed the Christian values of the family he was sent to and is quickly in conflict with the rest of his family.
The novel is written from the point of view of “Philip Roth” a Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey, no doubt with some of Roth’s actual childhood memories (when he and a friend follow Christians home on the bus for example). This gives it a sense of realism that it may not have had was it was narrated through an adult’s eyes. Philip watches these events but he does not always understand them, a feeling that is somewhat shared by the reader. Finally, that Philip is narrating these events from some point in the future gives hope that this will not be forever.
At the novels end, the Roths are in pieces, all still alive but much damaged by events. There has been rioting, violence and they have lived in fear of their lives. Lindbergh has disappeared and the country is in a state of martial law. Although things look grim for them, we know from the news story style of the previous chapter that their ordeal will soon start to be over. Although, as has been seen in current America, things do not immediately change just because a new person has been elected into the White House.
Finally, reading this book at this point in time made it very easy to imagine this happening. It didn’t seem impossible that it might happen in the US because it was happening in the US. A reality star who was popular for all the wrong reasons, who constantly shouted about fake news, who had a very clear list of whom he viewed as Un-American; the parallels couldn’t be clearer. And while the US now has hope for the future, in the shape of Joe Biden, the story is far from over. We just have to hope that it will start to get better when he is inaugurated, in a few days time.