47 pages 1 hour read

Philip Roth

The Plot Against America

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel, The Plot Against America, is a reimagining of the years immediately preceding America’s entry into World War II. In 1940, in Roth’s version of events, Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency and quickly begins instituting policies and attitudes that will shape the lives of all American Jews. Philip Roth is a child during the events of the book, and recounts the events that overtook his family during the rise of American fascism under the Lindbergh administration.

Philip Roth is also the author of the novel, and his fictional counterpart is raised in Newark, in the same neighborhood as was the real-life Roth. He recounts Lindbergh’s tragic history—his baby was kidnapped and murdered—as well as his impressive aviation feats. He runs on a promise of keeping America out of the European war, and portrays Roosevelt as a warmonger. Initially, the Roths experience only a mild unease during the new Lindbergh administration. But soon they will feel less welcome; during a tour of Washington DC, their hotel room is given away because they are Jews. 

Various political allegiances will cause a rift between family members. Alvin, Philip’s cousin, enlists in the Canadian military to fight against Germany and loses a leg. He becomes embittered against Herman Roth, whose pro-American, anti-Nazi speeches convinced him to join the fight. Sandy is selected as a member of the Just Folks program, which grooms him to become a recruiter for other youth who might participate in the program. Just Folks is eventually revealed to be a staging ground for isolating Jewish children from their families. Soon, Sandy is referring to his family as “ghetto Jews.” 

As the situation worsens, Herman Roth refuses to believe that he should take his family and leave, even as other Jewish families begin emigrating to Canada. Walter Winchell, a popular, Jewish radio host and columnist, publicly condemns Lindbergh at every chance. He is shot and killed while campaigning for the presidency during the election that would have preceded Lindbergh’s second term. His death leads to an outbreak of violent riots in many major cities, with Detroit experiencing the greatest amount. 

Near the end of the novel, Lindbergh makes a solo flight in his plane and is never seen again. Rumors arise that he is in Germany, and that he has been kidnapped by Jews, which leads to greater violence and fear. But Mrs. Lindbergh announces on the radio that she does not believe the claims of the kidnapping, and begins to dismantle the corrupt, anti-Semitic administration. Less than three weeks later, Roosevelt is elected to a third term and the country—and the lives of the Roths—begin to stabilize. 

The Plot Against America is a skillful examination of patriotism, zealotry, the Jewish experience in America, cults of personality, and more. Its use of real-life historical figures grounds the novel in a sense of historical authenticity, despite the novel being a work of speculative fiction.

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