The cover of Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America.
Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America (ISBN: 1400079497) was one of those books whose subject matter (alternative history) was interesting enough that I considered purchasing it, but difficult enough for an author to write about that I was wary. It is simple to write historical fiction, since one can always rely on the events that occurred, which in many cases make a compelling story in their own right. Alternative histories, on the other hand, are all about extrapolation.

But it is this extrapolation which is the problem with The Plot Against America. As a historical coming-of-age narrative in 1940s Newark, the book works well. It is not, however, a good example of alternate history.

The book is supposed to take place in an alternate America, where Charles Lindbergh ran for president in 1940 and defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a result, America's latent anti-semtism and fear of war leads the United States into a conciliatory position toward Nazi Germany and its allies. Pearl Harbor does not occur in December 1941. America does not enter the war.

However, this is all background. The majority of the book is about the protagonist, an alternate Phillip Roth, and his adventures growing up. This felt like familiar territory to me, because I read several growing-up-in-the-city-in-the-1940s books when I was younger.[1] While interesting, this was not what I expected. Where was the action and drama? Why did everyone keep talking?

In Adam Cadre's review of the book, he notes:

I get the sense that these people saw the swastika on the front cover of the novel and expected to read about Germans goose-stepping across the countryside shoving cornfed Midwesterners into ovens. The thing is, fascism wouldn't afflict Middle America. Fascism would be perpetrated by Middle America. Fascism is little more than the tyranny of the majority. It is the 90% attempting to become the 100%.

I am willing to admit that I did expect that there would be ovens, and that "cornfed Midwesterners" would be manning them. I assumed that this was Roth's intention - to show how the anti-semitism and racism that was constantly roiling just below the surface of American society could have emerged into murderous hate if the government had decided that allying with facism was a better alternative than allying with communism.[2]

This does not happen. There are riots and some Jews are lynched, but nothing even near the scale of the Holocaust. While the reader repeatedly hears in the book about the threat that the Lindbergh administration poses to America's Jews, they are never told about the fears of other ethnic and religious minorities. When one recalls the facts of the Japanese-American internment or the almost de rigueur lynchings in the South, Roth's alternate history almost fades into irrelevance.

After reading the book, I became even more dissatisfied upon mediation of the title: The Plot Against America. The lesson of the book seems to be that it is not Middle America that is our enemy.[3] It is those pesky foreigners. In the 1940s, it was Nazi Germany. Now, they are Islamic terrorists. In both cases, the only way to defeat them is a united America.[4]

While I inherently agree with this argument, Roth is not convincing enough. The relatively slow pace of the book leads the reader to believe that the American brand of facism might be slower and kinder than its European or Asian cousin, but it was no less discriminatory. The quick, confused ending suggests that America and facism inherently do not mix.
[1] Some examples: Alan and Naomi, Who Was That Masked Man Anyway?, and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.

[2] I do not think that this decision was a "no-brainer." The combination of America's historical ties with Western Europe - now dominated by Nazi Germany, the relative weakness of Britain and the Soviet Union, and the popularity of neutrality is a powerful one.

[3] Us, in this context, being the liberal Northeast, the blue states, etc.

[4] Imagine track 3 from the Team America: World Police soundtrack playing loudly in the background.