Decorah Stories is excited to announce the inaugural selection in its monthly book club: Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America.
Beginning in March, Decorah Stories will publish discussion questions, historical context, and literary commentary about The Plot Against America and its place in Philip Roth’s authorship. Decorah Stories will also offer readers opportunities to share questions and comments online. At this time, no public discussion is currently scheduled. A suggested reading schedule will be published Monday February 24, followed by supplementary material produced by Decorah Stories.
Published in 2004 amid the Iraq War, Roth’s novel was recently adapted into a six-part mini-series by David Simon (The Wire, Show Me a Hero) that premieres on HBO on March 16.
The novel is an alternative historical novel and explores how the lives of a Jewish family in Newark are irrevocably disarranged when, in 1940, aviator hero and Nazi-sympathizer Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president over Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Campaigning behind the slogan of “America First,” Lindbergh wins the presidency, in part, because of his isolationist foreign policy, vowing to keep America out of the escalating war in Europe and decrying F.D.R. as a “war-monger.” After getting elected, Lindbergh keeps the U.S. out of World War II, forms an alliance with the Third Reich, and both subtly and systematically threatens the day-to-day lives of Jews in America.
The novel belongs in the alternative history genre, which has produced books as brilliant and diverse as 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man in the High Castle, and Bring the Jubilee.
But within this grouping Roth’s novel is unique. He doesn’t project contemporary interests and conflict into a bleak future, like you see in dystopian fictions like 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Nor does he project contemporary critiques into the past, like we see in The Man in the High Castle and Bring the Jubilee.
Instead, The Plot Against America is an examination of an alternative past told through the autobiographical perspective of Roth himself, narrating how he and his family would have changed and stayed the same during the counterfactual presidency of Lindbergh.
We see a young Philip Roth observing with curiosity, dismay, and inevitable horror as his family experiences the fear of uncertainty, the disruption of a home-life, and the terror of prejudice and not knowing how history will turn out.
For those persecuted, the uncertainty of knowing when to leave is a traumatic experience—and Roth’s novel is an intimate and blistering examination into the uncertainty of history. As Roth wrote in a 2004 essay accompanying the publication of The Plot Against America: “…all the assurances are provisional, even here in a two-hundred-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.” After November 2016, those words hold particular, almost prophetic significance.
There’s nothing inevitable about history. The clear-sight of retrospect deludes us into projecting certainty and inevitability onto history, deceiving ourselves into believing that historical figures and ordinary folks knew how the plot was going to turn out. They didn’t, we don’t, and Roth brilliantly elaborates this point in the novel: “Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”