Published weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Philip Roth's new novel created a stir as readers looked for a veiled subtext to the political race. Roth, however, who began this novel in January 2001, delves deeply into another era with its own political anxieties--the years preceding America's entry into World War II. Looking back at the late 1930s, Roth recalls a time when antisemitism streamed from the radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin and the oratory of Minister Gerald L. K. Smith; when Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh accepted the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Hitler's Nazi government; when isolationist groups opposed the need to fight what they termed "a Jewish war" and favored the popular Lindbergh as a candidate to oppose Roosevelt--until the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the war.
Changing one historical fact in this novel--while keeping many others intact--leads to a nightmare scenario in America. "We were a happy family in 1940," Roth writes of his Newark-based Jewish family. "Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed." Roth narrates this story from the perspective of himself as a seven-year-old child. Young Philip's anxiety begins with his parents' obsessive listening to radio news during the campaign. As soon as the newly-elected President Lindbergh signs a pact with Nazi Germany, the status of American Jews begins to deteriorate. Some Jews decide to resist: his cousin Alvin joins the Canadian army in order to fight the Nazis. Eventually his father Herman is ordered to relocate to the Midwest, along with other Jews from Newark, in a clear attempt to break up the electoral power of Jewish neighborhoods. As pogroms break out in Boston, Detroit, Louisville, and Newark, an Italian neighbor offers Herman a gun to protect his family.
In the early days of the Lindbergh administration, not all Jews were as conscious of the dangers as Philip's parents. Philip's aunt Evelyn and her fiancé, the nationally known Rabbi Bengelsdorf, take up leading positions in Lindbergh's newly created "Office of American Absorption," the agency responsible for Jewish resettlement. Evelyn and the Rabbi are delighted to be invited guests at a White House dinner with German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. They simply do not believe that antisemitism at home or abroad will affect them. Listening to Evelyn's glowing account of the state dinner, Philip declares: "Never in my life had I so harshly judged any adult...nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others."
Roth's novel depicts this period as the end of the age of innocence for American Jews. Imagining a different political course for America in those years brings home his point: that the unthinkable could have happened--and indeed did happen to the Jews of Europe.