The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin; $26
When The Plot Against America arrived in bookstores just weeks before the election last November, Philip Roth insisted in interviews that there was no connection between his book and current events. Methinks the author was being disingenuous.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine a book, or anything else, for that matter, more effectively tapping the zeitgeist of this electoral season than Roth’s 25th novel. A coming of age story, as told by a preadolescent “Philip Roth,” The Plot Against America takes place in Newark, N.J., between 1940 and 1942. The everyday life of Roth’s Jewish neighborhood is rambunctiously described, including the various public figures that informed its culture, from radio personality Walter Winchell to local gangster “Longy” Zwillman. There is, however, one radical difference between the actual historical period and the world that author Philip Roth creates: Franklin Roosevelt is defeated by aviation hero Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 election.
According to The Plot Against America’s version of history, the Republicans find themselves deadlocked at their convention over who to run against Roosevelt. Then, at 3 a.m., Lindbergh strides into the convention hall dressed in his pilot’s leathers and declares himself a candidate. His platform consists of one plank: He will keep America out of the war in Europe. He is immediately nominated and goes on to beat Roosevelt in a landslide. Upon taking office, Lindbergh signs a nonaggression pact with Hitler.
In Newark, Philip’s insurance salesman father sees a fascist night falling over America. He’s right. First his family encounters unexpectedly virulent anti-Semitism during a vacation in Washington, D.C. Then Philip’s older brother joins a federal program called Just Folks and goes off to spend the summer working on a tobacco farm in Kentucky where he learns to eat pork sausage and work the land with a Christian family. When the father’s insurance company announces that it wants to relocate him to the Midwest as part of another government program, he’s ready to snap.
Roth, the author, does a brilliantly chilling job of documenting the inexorable, wheedling way that a supposedly free society can turn, of its own volition, into a repressive, intolerant and brutal state without anyone noticing — except its victims. As young Philip observes early on, “And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. 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.”
Roth deftly combines elements of 1940s noir, family saga and historical fantasy to get beneath the surface of what transpires when what supposedly can’t happen in America does. Given recent manifestations of national paranoia — from creation of the Patriot Act to the reelection of a flightsuit-wearing president who seems to view the Constitution as a hindrance and government as an instrument for command and control — The Plot Against America seems certain to stand as some kind of literary marker for our time. Not just a cautionary tale, but a cry of the heart.
More Amazing Tales from Indiana
by Fred D. Cavinder
Indiana University Press; $14.95
A catch-all of head-shakers, this follows the first selection of the same title sans “More.” You can start anywhere without losing the thread of what came before, and stop at any point without interrupting continuity. It’s a good keep-in-the-car volume, to read while waiting to pick up children from the rounds of activities, or being in line at carry-out.
Each of us will pick out a favorite or two. One of mine is on page 64. It’s about a feisty fellow by the name of Harvey Washington Wiley. This man is unknown, but what he pioneered during his lifetime in the late 19th century impacts every one of us today. Think safe foods and you’re getting warm.
Page 109 reveals something I never thought to wonder about. How did formations for marching bands come about?
And then there’s the “Dick and Jane” story on page 172. Yup, the formula of limited vocabulary books to teach and learn reading that eventually led to the Dr. Seuss phenom had its humble beginnings with a Hoosier born in Frankfort. But why and how did it come about?
You’ll have to dip into the book to learn the full stories and more stuff. Telling would kill sales. Unfortunately, the awful cover design doesn’t much attract anyone to pick up the book.
Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation
By Cokie Roberts
William Morrow; $24.95
A social history, written in first person as a chat between author and reader, this book shares an intimate portrait of living within times we now call “historic” but actually gets recycled because that’s the way of the world. Some names are familiar or slightly so: Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Phillis Wheatley. Other names may be on the first-time-I’ve-heard-about-her list: Mercy Otis Warren, Eliza Pinckney, Catherine Littlefield Green, Deborah Read Franklin (uh-huh, Ben’s wife).
These women, and a dozen others, figured in significant ways in the development of our emerging nation during the 18th century. Their importance, however, escaped notation in history books and their portraits didn’t get on legal tender. Roberts twines their connected stories through a series of strands that’s tighter than six degrees of separation, despite disparate ways of life between Northern and Southern colonies.
Roberts plumbed letters and diaries. Through them we learn that different facets and aspects of the stand against “the mother country” and the ultimate war for independence were defined as much by women’s concerns as by those of the men, whose names are more familiar. Abigail Adams was not silent about slavery, rights of women, treatment of the poor, universal education. Her ideas, however, were passed over and we’ve been the poorer for the oversight. It makes a reader slightly hot under the collar that her blueprint for the making of a new nation, endorsed by other like-minded patriots of her gender, was suppressed by the men who were demanding equality with their counterparts in London.
The women kept the farms running and the businesses open while men were off negotiating and in combat, though a far larger share of women than has been known did pick up arms in men’s clothing.
And, while Ben Franklin is touted for his discoveries, little has been told about Eliza Pinkney’s important horticultural and scientific work to make the colonies’ gross national products viable. Her tenacity with developing indigo dye, planting groves of trees for ship building materials and experimentation for hybrid crops were significant for the economy of 18th century America.
Women raised $300,000 in paper money to support the troops and stood up to Gen. George Washington as to its uses. You have to read the book to fully appreciate this “lost” or hidden bit of our story, along with much more. Intrigue and power battles cross genders when it comes to Benedict and Margaret Arnold. And the gossip in the press of the day touched even the very proper Martha Washington. You’ll enjoy how she countered it.
Merry Kitschmas: The Ultimate Holiday Handbook
By Michael D. Conway
Photographs by Peter Medilek
Chronicle Books; $14.95
Slick shtick to send you over the edge from decorum to cringe. Tongue-in-cheek it’s not. This is straight-up sociology of tacky camp that lives and breathes in the homes of people we all know. Believe me, I’ve witnessed it in wide-eyed wonder. Just two years ago a lady in a neighboring state lavished her creativity on a tinsel tree set on an upturned something in the window of her trailer park home. The table fare in my honor was cubed Velveeta surrounded by crackers on a plastic Santa face plate resurrected from holidays past. Each guest also brought a dish. And one was released from its can right before my eyes. The marvel was a shimmering specimen of jellied cranberry sauce, its indentations perfect. Everyone clapped.
So, take Conway’s decorations, wrappings and recipes, including caramelized canned white potatoes, seriously. His basic fruitcake just might be off a slice of your family’s celebrations. Tucked into the glib chatter are tidbits of trivia. What do you really know about the figgy pudding of which we go a’caroling? Or about that hearty mincemeat pie Charles Dickens praises as dessert? The recipes are for real, if you choose to imbibe “coarsely ground beef suet.” Don’t even think to voice that pun.