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The Plot Against America    by Philip Roth order for
Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Acclaimed writer Philip Roth is in top form in Plot Against America, a mesmerizing novel about the effect of World War II on American Jews. Does this sound like well-trodden history? Well, Roth very imaginatively has created an alternative history.

What would have happened to the U.S. if Franklin D. Roosevelt had not won a third presidential term in 1940 and taken the country into World War II in 1941? In Roth's America, the majority of people favor isolationism and elect the very popular aviator Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh's anti-Semitic views are well-documented, and in this fictional history he signs a treaty with Hitler and then starts gradually implementing policies against American Jews.

The novel is told from the perspective of young Philip Roth (born in 1933) and his family who live in a Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Much of the book appears to be true to Roth's own childhood and experiences in a time when Jews were only grudgingly accepted in the mainstream of American society. Philip's father Herman and his friends foresee the dangers in the Lindbergh presidency and some take refuge in Canada. But Herman insists that he is a loyal U.S. citizen and that the rights of Jewish citizens will be protected.

All of this is told from a young person's perspective, a technique that Roth has used before to great effect. We see the preteen Philip focused mostly on his boyish pursuits but still nervously aware of his parents' fears and how their lives are endangered. Slowly and insidiously, life for Jews changes. It begins with innocent programs such as one where Jewish teenagers are sent to the Mid-West to work on farms in the summer to mainstream them. Philip's older brother Sandy goes to Kentucky and comes back an enthusiastic convert who accuses his parents of being ghetto Jews.

Soon, though, the changes are much more harmful, and Herman realizes that he and his family and all the Jews are in danger. At this point the story almost careens out of control like a runaway train, but then comes to an ultimately very satisfying conclusion. Anyone reading this novel cannot help feeling a frisson of anxiety about parallels in current U.S. government policies such as the Patriot Act. Just where should be the line drawn in the restriction of rights and intrusions into people's private lives? Plot Against America is a welcome reminder to us to think about these issues.

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