THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA by Philip Roth
Reviewed by Janet Lan, Friday Morning Book Group
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(June 29, 2006) "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" said
Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address.
Philip Roth has written an imaginative and frightening alternative history,
covering 1940 to 1942, a period in our real history in which FDR was in
power and fascism was threatening to take over Europe and possibly the
world. This is a book about a mounting fear, felt by the small Jewish
community of Weequabic NJ, where Roth spent his childhood. The fear starts
when it becomes apparent that the aviation hero and anti-Semite Charles
Lindbergh may, and indeed does, become President of the United States,
after defeating FDR in the election of 1940.
We are realistically immersed into the lives of the Roth family, where we find 7 year old Philip and the rest of the close-knit Jewish family and community engulfed in a claustrophobic and gradually all engulfing fear for the loss of American values and freedom, at a time when the Jews of Europe are being annihilated. We learn how very American the Jews of Weequabic are and their disbelief that fascism could occur in the United States. We read of the responses of Roth's parents to this threatening situation and also of his aunt who responds in an opposing manner. Resistance or flight versus cooperation with the authorities are the two alternatives Roth presents through the lives of his characters.
The situation in which the Roths and their neighbors find themselves and the decisions they have to make to possibly save their own lives, are of course the very decisions that Jews in Germany in the 30's were faced with. The fear is real and justified, deaths occur resulting from Lindbergh's policies and the Jews indeed have more to fear than fear itself.
Our book group largely enjoyed the book and we asked the big question "Could this really happen in America?" -- then and indeed now. We are currently living through a time in which civil liberties are being reduced in the name of Homeland Security and fear mongering is on the rise. We discussed the treatment of the Japanese in World War II in the US and the treatment of American Indian children forced to leave their homes to go to Indian Schools and orphanages in the 1950's and 1960's. We felt that perpetual vigilance is needed to maintain our freedoms. The book also evoked a discussion of ethnic identity issues in the US, including the strong American identity felt by the Roths. We felt that the book was a remarkable tribute to the strength of Roth's parents.
Most of us were disappointed by what we felt was an abrupt and unrealistic ending to the book, but nevertheless considered it to be a remarkable novel, which we can recommend to other book groups enthusiastically.
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