The book: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
First line: "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear."
Last line: "The boy himself was the stump, and until he was taken to live with his mother's married sister in Brooklyn ten months later, I was the prosthesis."
Confession time: The Solipsist, as a literate Jewish man from New York, has not read as much Philip Roth as you might expect. Portnoy's Complaint, a couple of the "Zuckerman" books, and, now The Plot Against America. Based on this last one, we may have to go back and fill in some gaps in our reading.
Plot presents an alternate history, wherein crypto-Fascist Charles A. Lindbergh, capitalizing on isolationist sympathies among the American public, defeats Franklin Delano Rosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. As a result, the United States stays out of the war in Europe, England is left to fend for itself against Hitler's war machine, and those Americans ideologically opposed to Nazism flee to Canada to join their armed forces in the battle against totalitarianism.
Yes, folks: In this book, Canadians are the kickass defenders of world freedom.
Well, it is fiction.
Closer to home, though, America's Jews find themselves torn between loyalty to the United States--especially to the Democratic ideals promulgated by FDR--and fear for what lies in store for them under the Lindbergh administration. Events are related from the point of view of Philip Roth--that is, young Philip Roth, seven-years-old at the start of the novel, who relates the events that might-have-been. His father, a staunch liberal, sells insurance for Metropolitan Life, until he is asked to relocate to Kentucky as part of Lindbergh's "Homestead 42" Act, which, depending on whom you ask, is either an attempt to assimilate Jews into the nation's heartland or a divide-and-conquer maneuver to break up Jewish communities. Philip's brother Sandy is co-opted by his aunt to serve as an enthusiastic mouthpiece for Lindbergh's Office of American Absorption, the agency charged with helping Jews "fit in" as good American citizens. Meanwhile, Philip's cousin Alvin runs off to fight Hitler and returns minus his left leg.
The book is a thrilling creation; indeed, despite the book's fictional nature, one is tempted to call it a "re-creation" of historical events. The reader feels the deepening dread of the Jewish population as Lindbergh comes to power: One of the book's early chapters, wherein the Roth's visit Washington shortly after Lindbergh's inauguration, is an ominous masterpiece. The only complaint we have, honestly, is that the book's climax feels a bit rushed (but we might expect from the author of Portnoy's Complaint): Once the full extent of the anti-Semitic fervor whipped up by Lindbergh and his associates becomes apparent, the book wraps things up fairly quickly and, ultimately, optimistically. True, the perpetual fear remains, but overall we feel that the worst does not come to pass. Presumably because, if it had, we might not have "Philip Roth" around to tell the tale.