I didn't expect to write another "what i'm reading" post so soon, but I'm so absorbed in this book that I had to post: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.
I'm not sure how familiar Canadians are with Philip Roth. He's an important American writer, very prolific, often confounding. His first novel was Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Plot Against America came out in 2004, and there's a long, long list in between.
Roth is both profound and playful, and his writing is hugely varied - he's not a writer for whom you can read one or two books and declare you know him. Some of his novels are among my favourite books; others I found unreadable. But without a doubt he is a great American voice. I'm hoping he wins the Nobel Prize in his lifetime.
Roth has also been very influential in bringing other voices to US audiences, most notably Milan Kundera and Primo Levi. One can imagine a direct line following the Eastern European experience, beginning with Kafka, then Roth, then Kundera. Roth is the branch of the family that came to America.
When The Plot Against America begins, it is 1939, in a working-class Jewish neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey. Everything is historically accurate: it is exactly 1939.
Then something different happens: the Republicans do not nominate Wendell Willkie to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt's bid for an unprecedented third term. They nominate Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh: hero, celebrity, friend of the Nazis, virulent anti-Semite. (This is true, too, except he wasn't nominated.) During the campaign, Lindbergh keeps his most objectionable sentiments under his hat, and the media - then known as "the press" - goes along for the ride. Lindy seduces the public with his plain-spoken charm, and runs on one simple promise: I will keep the US out of another war.
He wins. FDR goes home to Hyde Park. A Nazi-sympathizer sits in the White House. It begins.
I am finding this book so gripping, so terrifying, and so completely believable, that I have to keep reminding myself that it didn't happen this way. I keep thinking, thank god I'm in Canada already, before this happens. Obviously, that's part of Roth's point.
The Plot Against America is not told as history. The narrator is a nine-year-old boy, who experiences these world events as personal, family history. So the book is also a coming-of-age story, and Roth is brilliant at this. The narrator's milieu is very familiar to me: it's the culture in which my parents grew up. My parents grew up in Brooklyn, but for these purposes, it's the same thing.
I don't know if the impact of this book would be as great for a reader who wasn't from the US, or who wasn't Jewish. I'm finding it sometimes almost too scary to read.
Have you seen the movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis? (I've mentioned it repeatedly in this blog, it's one of my minor obsessions, like George Orwell.) Finzi-Continis is about Italian Jews on the eve of their destruction, and it's the best movie I've ever seen about the Holocaust. There is no violence; you never see a concentration camp or a murder. The comfortable Italian Jews are slowly stripped of their lives. They adapt to one indignation, and then another, rationalizing and adjusting, as people do, as they gradually become second-class citizens. And then, it happens. I don't know if I've ever been so affected by a movie - so completely chilled, so frightened - as I was at the end of that one.
I am about halfway through The Plot Against America, and I purposely haven't read anything that might reveal plot. So I don't know if the American Jews, and their country, make it out alive.
Late addition: In this alternate universe, where the US does not enter the war against Germany or Japan, leaving the British and Canada to struggle virtually alone against the Nazis, Canada emerges as a safe haven for American Jews. Canadian readers will be justly proud of their country's role in this imagined nightmare.