Histories alternate, avoided and actual

Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America', left, and Michael Kluckner's 'Toshiko'
Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America', left, and Michael Kluckner's 'Toshiko'

In 1961, Philip Roth wrote: “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Canadians generally think of themselves as being at remove from the action in interesting times, but not so of late. With new leaders, this country will move in new economic directions, cultivate different social policy and new ideas about what constitutes a national community. The Conservative Party of Canada judged any number of these issues wrongly in its efforts to gain re-election.

Quebecers have been buffeted by such shifts in political leadership and social policy since the dark months under Pauline Marois, when her separatist party contemplated new ways to engineer human souls: spearheading the Parti Québécois’ platform was a prohibition on “ostentatious” expressions of religious faith by employees of public institutions. Even the contemplation of such policies brought about a sure and quick outcome, as Quebecers began singling each other out. As in France, the head-covering became a point of violent disagreement, and policies touted as being in favour of social consensus revealed their explosive, divisive force.

As it turns out, a book in Roth’s oeuvre – by no means his best known – serves as an ingenious response to such events. This is his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, which offers a canny, even prophetic fictional tableau based on the 1940 U.S. election, which was won by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democrats.

The Plot Against America finds Roth writing in a minor genre – that of alternate history. Conventional contributors to this genre are rarely canny or prophetic, but shoot instead for what might be called the extreme, or even the insane. What, they ask, if Adolf Hitler won the war? Or, what if American planes were flown into the towers of Dubai? These are extravagant imaginings, not so different from science fiction scenarios in their effort to work out alternate realities. Roth’s book is firmly settled in American public and private history of the 1940s.

It opens at the moment when Roosevelt managed, by securing the majority of urban votes, to win an unprecedented third mandate. But in Roth’s fictional revision of that time, F.D.R. is bested, in the face of American isolationism and populism, by the Republican ticket led by the transatlantic flyer Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh’s fame resulted from his 1927 flight, but also from the “trial of the century” that followed the kidnap and murder of his infant son. Roth roots his imaginings of a nativist Lindbergh leadership in the historical record itself. Lindbergh’s attendance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics led him to conclude that Hitler was “undoubtedly a great man,” while his wife, the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, concurred that American views of Hitler were based on “very strong (naturally) Jewish propaganda in the Jewish-owned papers.”

Through the early years of the war, Lindbergh gave prominent speeches in favour of anti-interventionism. His wife’s bestselling non-fiction book A Confession of Faith promoted similar ideas.  It’s possible that the kernel that propelled Roth’s counter-history is a May 1941 America First Rally at Madison Square Garden, where a crowd of 25,000 cheered Lindbergh as “Our next president.”

Writing early in this century, Roth could not have foreseen the zealotry of American electioneering of 2015 (certainly, his eye was not on the possibility of a Canadian government whose business might include a “barbaric practices” hotline. In The Plot Against America, Canada is the place American Jews consider moving to as life in Newark seems increasingly threatening). But his fiction is prescient, mixing deep historical knowledge with prophetic writing that imagines the rise of proto-fascism in American life.

Roth’s genius with character and language dramatizes these ideas rather than drawing him toward polemics. The family at the centre of his fiction is reminiscent of the up-and-coming, well-assimilated New Jerseyans portrayed in his other fiction, wedded as they are to his own background in Newark. On a post-election driving trip to Washington, D.C., the over-proud American-Jewish father finds himself silenced in restaurants and before the Lincoln Memorial as a “loudmouth Jew.” Tarring and feathering hovers as the next step in his public diminishment as a cast-off citizen.

A book for thinking about the Canadian abandonment of a select group of its citizens is Michael Kluckner’s recent graphic novel Toshiko. Kluckner has made his reputation as a careful historian of Vancouver and the B.C. landscape, through his wonderful watercolours of what he has dubbed “vanishing Vancouver.” In Toshiko, narrative is pushed along by Kluckner’s light-handed drawings of the B.C. interior, where Canadian Japanese were “relocated” during World War II after being dispossessed of their homes, businesses and fishing boats, and their birthright in Canadian society.

Roth imagines a similar policy, under a Lindbergh presidency, of sending Jews from the cities to rural outposts. Cynically called “Homestead 42,” it relies on major corporations to pinpoint employees who “would benefit enormously by becoming something more than” part of a Jewish family “too frightened ever to leave the ghetto.” From Newark, the narrator’s family is to be sent to Kentucky.

Kluckner’s approach, like Roth’s, investigates history by way of a compelling narrative. Toshiko focuses on the lives of Canadians who find themselves uprooted and sent to the B.C. interior, and on those whom they meet when they get there. Toshiko also finds its way to 1940s Vancouver, a place of squatter huts on the beaches, of young men heading off to war, where a young Japanese woman without a residency permit is apprehended, her partner accused of “harbouring a Japanese.”

Toshiko is history well told, while Roth’s challenge is to tell history while pushing its borders into fiction. It’s a good time to read both books, which remind us of the 1940s and bring the present moment into sharper focus.

Norman Ravvin is a writer and critic in Montreal