Roth follows the fortunes of the Roth family of Newark as they live through the tumultuous events of mid-1940 to late 1942. Those years were tumultuous enough on their own, of course, but Roth stirs them up further by postulating that the anti-Semitic isolationist flyboy Charles Lindbergh, not Wendell Wilkie, was the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, and that he, not FDR, won the election. Roth opens this wound in the historical record and then sews it up again neatly, getting Lindbergh out of the White House and FDR back in just as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in December 1942, rather than 1941.
So essentially, Roth has added a year to history, and he fills it to the hilt with resonant, funny, frightening, and entirely plausible events. I had assumed, knowing the basic idea beforehand, that the novel would focus exclusively on historical characters and situations. Far from it. This is the story of the Roth family against a (pseudo-)historical background, not an alternative history with a family thrown in for color. In fact, it’s really easy to imagine how boring the book could have been had it been conceived of by a history nerd whose idea of narrative charge was, say, detailing of the ramifications of a Lindbergh presidency for agricultural policy. Roth, on the contrary, keeps the Roth family and their struggles at the center of the novel, and as a result reminds us forcefully that history doesn’t happen to Americans, Jews, Arabs, Germans, women, children, men, presidents, Christians, Muslims, or any other collective noun: it happens in this particular kitchen, and aboard this particular city bus, and on this particular street corner, to a single particular person. Among this book’s many, many wisdoms, that one seems to me the most important, that history affects not peoples but people.