by Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape 2004
About the book
When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh, in a nationwide radio address, publicly blamed the Jews for selfishly pushing America towards a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but, upon taking office as the 33rd president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial 'understanding' with Adolf Hitler, whose conquest of Europe and whose virulent anti-Semitic policies he appeared to accept without difficulty. What then followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new novel by Pulitzer prize winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family - and for a million such families all over the country - during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst. (from Front Flap of the book)
My Thoughts *spoiler alert*
I had really low expectations for this book. It was selected for the Friday book group by the person who had also chosen Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White. That was a tough slog that I am yet to complete! When I started The Plot Against America I feared that this would be another tough slog, and after falling asleep twice while on the first page I was certain that I wouldn't finish it in time for the discussion. I think other people thought it was a tough slog too. We will be a small group tonight with lots of group members having other things on. A few of them told me they found it heavy going and one was annoyed about the amount of detail that is packed into the sentences. It wasn't just the amount of detail that is in the sentences though. I would get lost as to what the sentence was about. Here's an example:
My brother, Sandy, a seventh-grader with a prodigy's talent for drawing, was twelve, and I, a third-grader a term ahead of himself - and an embryonic stamp collector inspired like millions of kids by the country's foremost philatelist, President Roosevelt - was seven. (p1)Or maybe this one
My mother - who wanted to go to teachers college but couldn't because of the expense, who lived at home working as an office secretary after finishing high school, who'd kept us from feeling poor during the worst of the Depression by budgeting the earnings my father turned over to her each Friday as efficiently as she ran the house-hold - was thirty six. p 1On Monday night however, I sat down to make some headway with this book. I had a headache and wasn't really focused and was playing a Facebook game at the same time... however once I got up to the bit where the Roth Family went to Washington I was hooked!! I like to think it was because I was feeling ill and my resistance was low that the Roth family wormed its way into my heart and I had to keep reading.
I feared the worst when Mr Taylor approached them in Washington and offered to be their guide. Driving them around in their own car for $9 a day. Surely he was up to no good and would make off with their car at the first opportunity. But no, this was my 21st century thinking! Mr Taylor was a genuine guide after all and even managed to crack a smile at Mr Roth's singing.
Philip Roth is the narrator for most of the book. He has quite a charming and funny voice. I think he captured the fear and the uncertainty of the times, as well as what it would have been like to have been a child. He would have understood even less about what was going on than his parents did but was still able to enjoy his child hood. I particularly liked his adventures with Earl Axman and his stealing of Seldon's clothes for what purpose he was unsure of until he decided to run away. I felt for Herman and Bess Roth, with trying to decide what was best for the family and not knowing whether they should go to Canada or stay until it was too late.
So here it is book group discussion day and I only have 15 pages to go! It's a bit frustrating that I can't just get them over and done with. I think there might be some tense moments in those last 15 pages as well! It seems that my resistance stayed low, or maybe I just got used to the style of writing... or maybe it changed as it went along, but it did become easier to read.
I think the book talked about some interesting issues. Do we really know what politicians stand for when they get elected to parliament? It is easy to get swept up in the excitement of charismatic leaders who say they will do whatever it is the mass of people want. Who will stand in their way? All it takes is for people to accept one small change, and another and another and you could be transferring people from a particular background to isolated areas away from their community, as happened in this book.