For a book propped up on an audacious premisethe fabric of greatest-generation America split at its seams over WWIIThe Plot Against America is a surprisingly subtle and stirring novel about family. Tilted like a memoir, the story surveys a 9-year-old "Philip Roth" and his family living in heavily Jewish Newark, New Jersey, where the rest of the country they love out of duty remains an exotic but inviting abstraction. With Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, the Roths lead a comfortable but cloistered existence: The father sells insurance, while the mother stays home with Philip, whose notions of civics begin and end with the statesmen in his stamp collection, and Sandy, an older brother who takes to drawing. The crack in the veneer comes when heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh swoops down to unseat Roosevelt, winning the 1940 presidential election on an antiwar platform that hardly masks his historically real anti-Semitism.
As grim portents take shape around them, the family clamors to preserve faith in a country swirling down a wormhole. No stranger to bold supposition, Roth-the-author maintains an elegant, almost eerie distance from his hypothetical memories. Nobody in Newark's colorfully rendered Jewish community agrees on the dangers ahead: Men on the street see a Holocaust in their homeland, while certain powerful rabbis see such recoiling as the byproduct of self-enforced ghettoization. The ideological divide finds heartrending echoes in the Roth family, which divides and binds together through episodes that take on different hues for the children and the adults.
In one such episode, the family visits Washington, D.C., where ominous whispers from bystanders force the young Philip to confront what it means to be Jewish in unfamiliar environs. All he knows is life at home, where his brother rebels against his father's worry, while his cousin Alvin moves to Canada to take up the fight against Hitler. Through Philip's eyes, the increasingly threatening Lindbergh presidency drifts by with an elusive sense of scale, raising his father's ire while remaining distant and detached from his day-to-day life.
Near the end, The Plot Against America adopts a sharp shift in tone that ratchets up the story's theoretical grounding. The growingly unreal direction threatens to stop the story's heart, but Roth's authority over his world never wavers. Instead, it gives bracing reality to the threat of a wrong turn, however far from home that turn might seem.