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Cambridge Book Club Readers~ The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

As head of the Office of American Absorption, Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in charge of an insidious Lindbergh program called Just Folks. The program, designed to take ethnic (mainly Jewish) children away from their families and place them in the home of a Midwestern American family for a summer, is reminiscent of a real American program of the late 1800's that removed Native American children from their homes and placed them in non-Native schools with hopes of "Americanizing" them. "Kill the Indian, and save the man" was a slogan used by one of the men responsible for that program, and one that could easily be modified to fit the goal of Just Folks.

As leader of Just Folks, Rabbi Bengelsdorf conscripts Philip's older brother Sandy to be among the first run of boys in the program. Despite his parent's protestations, Sandy is excited about the opportunity to see the country, accepts his uncle's invitation. When Sandy returns from the program a changed boy, spouting the rhetoric of Lindbergh supporters like his aunt and uncle, Philip's father battles to retain control of his sons, whom he feels slipping away from him.

Sandy is nearly gone already, and Philip, who looks up to his older brother, is confused by Sandy's newfound political affiliations and begins to question his father's ideology. If Sandy and a well-respected Jew like Rabbi Bengelsdorf both support Lindbergh, maybe his father is wrong. "How could I not be confused," wonders Philip about Bengelsdorf, "when our disgrace and our glory were one and the same?"

As the novel progresses, the Roths and the larger Jewish community continue to disintegrate as new Lindbergh policies chip away at strongholds of Jewish heritage like Newark. The most damaging blow comes in the form of the Homestead '42 program, which, like the Just Folks initiative, aims to assimilate minorities by transplanting urban Jews like the Roths to the Midwest. The Roths are one of the early families chosen for the program and are asked to move to Danville, Kentucky, where Philip's father has been transferred by his company. Forced to choose between a financially secure life for his family, and his heritage, Philip's father must make a decision on which is more important to the well-being of his family.

With Lindbergh's soaring popularity, and the programs initiated by Bengelsdorf's Office of American Absorption, many Jews, the Roths included, pin their dreams on the shoulders of Franklin Roosevelt and Walter Winchell, the two remaining bastions of Democratic value, and reminders that the whole country hasn't gone mad with Lindy. But the little hope they offer is overshadowed by the intensifying Lindbergh agenda. As violence begins to erupt in cities with major Jewish populations, the Roths' hope for change dwindles until it is finally squashed when they receive a phone call from a classmate of Philip's who has moved with his mother as part of the Homestead program. The young child has not seen his mother in almost a day and calls the only people who he knows--the Roths--seven hundred miles away. As Philip witnesses his mother take the call, he finally notes the severity of what has been going on, "Till Seldon's frantic phone call from Kentucky, I'd never totted up the cost to my mother and father of the Lindbergh presidency-till that moment, I'd been unable to add that high."

What is so frightening about Roth's creation is the reality of it, and it is not a stretch of praise to place The Plot Against America in the same realm as it's dystopic predecessors like 1984. But unlike Orwell's world, Roth needs no Big Brother to create a climate of oppression and fear. Rather, his envisages the dangers of a president with an agenda, and a population willing to go along with it. It doesn't take an army of jackbooted thugs patrolling the streets or a system of armband identifiers like those used in Nazi Germany to oppress the Roths and the Jewish neighbors, just a population willing to go along with the status quo. Roth's novel is a powerful piece of fiction and one that will be read, with meaning, for ages.

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  • Jules

    Suggestion for February: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. A story of a woman, struggling with rural working class poverty and on the path to adultery, derailed by a spiritual awakening and subsequently thrown into an unfamiliar world of science and climate change.

    I guarantee there will be a lot to talk about. And Kingsolver shows her mastery of the craft of writing.

    January 4, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Great idea though in the interest of used book availability I suggest one of Kingsolver's earlier books, perhaps Prodigal Son or Pigs in Heaven.

      January 6, 2013

    • Carolyn A.

      Any of Kingsolver's titles would be great! If anyone's interested, I listened to an interesting interview with her on the radio show On Being. You can listen to the podcast by clicking the link in the upper left. http://www.onbeing.or...­

      January 10, 2013

  • Carolyn A.

    It was very nice meeting everyone, and I had a great time discussing the book! Looking forward to next month.

    January 10, 2013

  • Paras H.

    The Plot Against America has won the vote...

    December 9, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Pasadena - David Ebershoff
    The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
    The Island of the Day Before - Umberto Eco
    Mr. Mani - A. B. Yehoshua
    What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt

    December 6, 2012

    • Philip

      or how about The Decendants. She also has a nice short story (if you can stand more short stories) called House of Thieves.

      December 6, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      The plot against America

      December 6, 2012

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