Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)
Although it’s at a notably higher literary level, this novel, like Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, is an “alternate history.” The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened in the U.S. had Charles Lindbergh run against and beaten Roosevelt in the 1940 election and not only held the U.S. out of the Second World War, but tacitly supported Hitler and begun to introduce anti-Semitic measures in the U.S. The story centres on “Philip Roth,” a boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the Second World War, and his parents, his brother Sandy (who briefly becomes a Lindbergh supporter) and his cousin Alvin.
There are countless references to Canada throughout the novel – far too many for me to catalogue them all – but they divide neatly into three larger categories.
1. A Centre of Resistance
In the novel, Lindbergh’s election platform essentially boils down to “A vote for Roosevelt is a vote for war”; Lindbergh himself is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who campaigns by flying across the country in his plane and repeating this one essential campaign idea in three-minute “speeches” wherever he lands (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the novel was published in the middle of the George W. Bush era). This conversation is between Philip and his brother Sandy:
“He’s going to be president,” Sandy told me. “Alvin says Lindbergh’s going to win.”
He so confused and frightened me that I pretended he was making a joke and laughed.
“Alvin’s going to go to Canada and join the Canadian army,” he said. “He’s going to fight for the British against Hitler.”
“But nobody can beat Roosevelt,” I said.
“Lindbergh’s going to. America’s going to go fascist.” (25-26)
When Lindbergh wins the election and keeps the U.S. out of the “European war,” Alvin goes to Canada, joins the army, loses a leg fighting, spends months in a Canadian army hospital in Montreal, and eventually returns to Newark to live with Philip’s family.
There is an interesting commentary on the idea of America as the “land of the free” in this part of the novel, given that Americans who want to fight against Hitler have to go to Canada to do so. Since Canada never rebelled, it is still tied to Great Britain in a way the U.S. no longer is, meaning there is no question whether Canada will enter the war on the British side. The U.S., being “free,” has more autonomy to stay out of European conflicts, and yet in the novel this apparent freedom is inverted, with the U.S. supporting a dictator and ultimately moving towards dictatorship itself, while Canada, though technically under the colonial yoke, so to speak, is fighting for freedom.
This leads to a further inversion of expected tropes about Canada: in general, we are portrayed as a less war-like nation than the U.S. In this case, it is Canada that is going to war and the U.S. that is remaining out of it, and yet because the war is seen as a just one, and the reason for U.S. neutrality is not principled pacifism but rather support for fascism, Canada’s willingness to fight appears like a virtue within the context of the novel.
There are a number of other references to Canada when Alvin comes up in the story, but none really expand on the essential idea in this passage; they simply reiterate it. There is one other moment about Alvin that might be worthy of note, however:
As a handicapped veteran he was eligible for further benefits should he choose to remain in Canada, where foreign volunteers into the Canadian armed forces, if they wished, were granted citizenship immediately upon discharge. And why didn’t he become a Canuck? asked Uncle Monty. Since he couldn’t stand America anyway, why didn’t he just stay up there and cash in? (122)
I believe this is the first time we’ve come across the term “Canuck” to refer to Canadians. It seems, in this instance, to have an edge of disdain to it, as if it were almost a slur. A couple of other conventional ideas of Canada are also present in this brief passage: the words “up there” convey again the obvious fact that Canada is to the north of the U.S., and in the mention of “further benefits” we might see a hint at Canada’s vastly superior health care system.
2. A Place of Refuge
By far the most common representation of Canada in the novel is as a “haven” for American Jews to escape to as the situation in the U.S. under Lindbergh becomes increasingly intolerable. The theme is sounded very early in the novel, and recurs pretty well all the way through; I will only focus on a few characteristic examples.
This passage relates to the Roth family taking a vacation in Washington D.C.:
The trip had been planned back when FDR was a second-term president and the Democrats controlled both Houses, but now with the Republicans in power and the new man in the White House considered a treacherous enemy, there was a brief discussion about our driving north instead to see Niagara Falls and to take a boat cruise in rain slickers through the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands and then to cross over in our car into Canada to visit Ottawa. Some among our friends and neighbors had already begun talking about leaving the country and migrating to Canada should the Lindbergh administration openly turn against the Jews, and so a trip to Canada would also familiarize us with a potential haven from persecution. (44)
That encapsulates the essential idea; there is an interesting moment that somewhat complicates this image of Canada as a safe haven, however. In the course of their vacation in Washington (in which the Roth family is turned out of a hotel and suffers various other forms of discrimination), Philip’s father gets into an argument by loudly praising Roosevelt in front of some Lindbergh supporters, one of whom calls him “a loudmouth Jew.” This is the father’s attempt to calm down Philip’s mother after the incident:
“Honey,” my father told her, “we ran into a screwball. Two screwballs. We might have gone up to Canada and run into somebody just as bad.” (66)
This is, I believe, the only moment in the novel that hints at Canadian anti-Semitism; the rest of the time, an uncomplicated image of Canada as a “haven from persecution” is maintained, though at this time anti-Semitism would likely have been as prevalent here as in the U.S.; without the Lindbergh administration’s tacit approval, however, it might not have been expressed as readily, and that seems to be the key idea in Roth’s conception of our country.
As the novel proceeds, escaping to Canada recurs as an increasingly likely possibility:
[My mother] explained to Sandy and me that her paycheck would contribute toward meeting the larger household bills occasioned by Alvin’s return while her real intention (known to no one other than her husband) was to deposit her paychecks by mail into a Montreal bank account in case we had to flee and start from scratch in Canada. (112)
So there we see flight to Canada as a prospect the Roths are seriously considering, and even beginning to prepare for. Things go a step further when some friends of the Roths’, the Tirschwells, actually make the move:
It was then that [my father] learned from Shepsie Tirschwell, whom he visited up in his booth after the show, that on the first of June his old boyhood friend was leaving for Winnipeg with his wife, his three children, his mother, and his wife’s elderly parents. Representatives of Winnipeg’s small Jewish community had helped Mr. Tirschwell find work as a projectionist at a neighborhood movie house there and had located apartments for the entire family in a modest Jewish neighborhood much like our own. The Canadians had also arranged a low-interest loan to pay for the Tirschwells’ move from America…. (194)
What strikes us here is the generosity of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, which is willing to do so much to help an American family move there. This suggests a strong community spirit, which indicates that Canada is a more communal, less individualistic nation than the U.S. It also reveals that Canadian Jews are aware of how dire things are becoming for Jews in America under Lindbergh. And in the passing mention that the Jewish community in Winnipeg is “small,” there is a suggestion that Canada is a less cosmopolitan and diverse nation than the U.S., but at the same time, almost counterintuitively, a more tolerant and welcoming one.
Tension over the question of moving to Canada eventually erupts in the Roth marriage:
“You don’t see Shepsie sitting around writing letters and waiting for the worst to happen,” [my mother] said. “No,” he replied, “not Canada again!” as though Canada were the name of the disease insidiously debilitating us all. “I don’t want to hear it. Canada,” he told her firmly, “is not a solution.” “It’s the only solution,” she pleaded. “I am not running away!” he shouted, startling everyone. “This is our country!” “No,” my mother said sadly, “not anymore. It’s Lindbergh’s. It’s the goyim’s. It’s their country….” (226)
The linking of Canada, which has always been presented as a haven, to a type of disease, is meant to demonstrate the anger in the father’s tone, I think, rather than to be a reflection on the nature of the country itself. But the question of whether to flee the U.S. or to remain and struggle to “save” it is central to the book, and we might draw parallels between that question and the idea of moving to Canada that was sometimes raised, albeit jokingly, by some Americans after George W. Bush won a second term, and again when Mitt Romney was running against Obama.
In Roth’s vision of the U.S. under Lindbergh, things become increasingly dire, ultimately leading to the outbreak of racially motivated riots in American cities. In a passage about riots in Detroit we come across the final reference to Canada as a safe haven:
By nightfall, several hundred of the city’s thirty thousand Jews had fled and taken refuge across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, and American history had recorded its first large-scale pogrom, one clearly modeled on the “spontaneous demonstrations” against Germany’s Jews known as Kristallnacht…. (266)
This shows how ugly the situation has become in the U.S., but doesn’t in any way change or advance the impression of Canada, which is still seen as an escape from the American anti-Semitism that is now running rampant. And so, with the exception of the one mention of possible anti-Semitism in Canada by Philip’s father (which is purely speculative), these parts of Roth’s novel actually present a very sustained and consistent view of Canada as an open, tolerant nation which is eager to welcome Jewish families fleeing persecution in the U.S.
3. A Stealthy Enemy (Contains Spoilers)
I generally think “spoiler alerts” are a bit absurd – Romeo and Juliet gives away the ending in the first 14 lines, after all – but since they seem to be part of online writing protocol, I will warn you that in this section, it’s not possible for me to discuss the references to Canada without “giving away” parts of the book’s ending, which, if you read exclusively to be surprised by plot twists, may spoil the novel for you. If a book doesn’t lose all interest for you as soon as you know what happens towards the end, you can safely read on.
The plot takes a major turn late in the novel when President Lindbergh, flying across the country on one of his speaking tours, simply disappears. No trace of him or of his plane is ever found. The Vice President, Burton Wheeler, becomes Acting President; Roth portrays him as even more of an anti-Semitic fascist than Lindbergh – or perhaps I should say as a more open anti-Semitic fascist. In any case, the situation becomes significantly worse for Jews in America.
For our purposes, the most interesting point is that Wheeler and his confederates in the American government immediately begin to hint that Canada is somehow involved in Lindbergh’s disappearance. The implication seems to be that the U.S., by opening hostilities with Canada, will create headaches for the British (we have already been told that “Canada had become virtually [Britain’s] only source of arms, food, medicine and machinery” (88)) and make it easier for the Nazis to win the war in Europe.
There are a number of passages in the closing chapters that link Canada to Lindbergh’s disappearance and cause escalating tensions between the U.S. and its northern neighbour. The following is a news item about a “German intelligence report” (I should note that this part of the novel is written in the form of archived news reports and not Philip’s first-person narration):
No sooner had the president taken off for Washington than he was unable to make contact with the ground or with other aircraft and had no choice but to capitulate when the Spirit of St. Louis was corralled by high-flying British fighter planes, which forced him to deviate from his course and to land, some hours later, at an airstrip secretly maintained by international Jewish interests across the Canadian border…. (309-10)
And in the next paragraph:
…Secretary of the Interior Ford is demanding that Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, conduct an intensive search on Canadian soil for President Lindbergh and his captors. (310)
Things quickly escalate:
Second, House Republicans introduce a bill calling for a declaration of war against the Dominion of Canada should Prime Minister King fail to reveal the whereabouts of America’s missing president within forty-eight hours. (315)
In Buffalo the mayor announces his intention to distribute gas masks to the city’s citizens, and the mayor of nearby Rochester initiates a bomb shelter program “to protect our residents in the event of a surprise Canadian attack.” An exchange of small-arms fire is reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the border between Maine and New Brunswick, not far from Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy. (317)
Canada’s continuing association with Great Britain (note “Dominion of Canada”) is here turned against it by the U.S. administration, which uses it to claim that Canada is, at best, being used by the British to stealthily attack the United States or, at worst, is actively working against U.S. interests. The quick escalation in these passages, and the way anti-Canadian sentiment catches fire, stirred up by American political leaders, seems to suggest that the U.S. is in the grip of some sort of mass hysteria. As well, it might again remind us of events during the George W. Bush administration when, shortly after 9/11, American politicians began to suggest (absent any apparent evidence) that terrorists were streaming across the undefended Canadian border into the U.S. to stage attacks against American targets.
The reference to Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island (a Canadian island, part of New Brunswick) is a fascinating one: though nothing is stated explicitly, the fact that he “summers” (love that verb) in what is technically part of Canada seems to be a way for the Wheeler administration to further link Roosevelt to the British and “Jewish interests” that are supposedly responsible for Lindbergh’s abduction.
All of this leads to the following exchange between Philip and his mother when she tells Philip he won’t be going to school because “the situation has further deteriorated”:
“I want to know why there’s no school, Ma.” “Must you know tonight?” “Yes. Why can’t I go to school?” “Well … it’s because there may be a war with Canada.” “With Canada? When?” “No one knows. But it’s best if you all stay home until we see what’s going on.” “But why are we going to war with Canada?” (353)
This passage, when contrasted with the ones above, sets up the central dichotomy of Canada in this novel: the Jewish characters view it as a safe haven, while the pro-Nazi Americans see it as a threatening British puppet state looming immediately to the north.
Philip’s response to his mother seems designed to point up the absurdity of the view of Canada held by the Wheeler administration and its allies. When Philip says, “With Canada?” it’s important to note that the word “Canada” (bolded for emphasis above) appears in italics in the text. The italics convey Philip’s incredulity at the idea that the U.S. could possibly be going to war with Canada, their quiet, peaceful, polite neighbour to the north. (Similar markers of incredulity were used in Howard Jacobson’s treatment of Canadian anti-Semitism). The closeness of the Canada-U.S. relationship, and the tendency of Americans to view Canadians as essentially milder versions of themselves, may be part of the reason Roth chooses this particular development for the final phase of his novel. It’s as if he’s saying that Americans must truly be in the grip of some kind of collective insanity if they are willing to go to war with an inoffensive little nation like Canada.
The final line above, “Why are we going to war with Canada?” seems to beg the obvious question: why would anyone? And the idea that lies behind it – that it is impossible to imagine anyone going to war with Canada – offers a neat summary of the general idea of Canada that comes across in Roth’s novel: as a safe, orderly, tolerant nation, in sharp contrast with the U.S., which progressively descends into insanity over the course of the book.
4. Bonus: Canada’s Nazi Figure Skater
There is one other interesting reference to Canada, which doesn’t really fit in with the others but seems worthy of note simply for its oddity. Though most of the Jewish characters in the book are portrayed as strongly anti-Lindbergh, Philip’s Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, support Lindbergh and essentially become collaborators once he is in power. The following quote comes from Aunt Evelyn’s description of a party she attended at the White House where von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the honoured guest:
[von Ribbentrop’s] known to be an excellent dancer, and he is, it’s true – a perfectly magical ballroom dancer. And his English is faultless. He studied at the University of London and then lived for four years as a young man in Canada. His great youthful adventure, he calls it. (213)
Ribbentrop did, in fact, live in Canada; here are the details, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Fluent in both French and English, young Ribbentrop lived at various times in Grenoble, France and London, before travelling to Canada in 1910.
He worked for the Molsons Bank on Stanley Street in Montreal, and then for the engineering firm M. P. and J. T. Davis on the Quebec Bridge reconstruction. He was also employed by the National Transcontinental Railway, which constructed a line from Moncton to Winnipeg. He worked as a journalist in New York City and Boston, but returned to Germany to heal from tuberculosis. He returned to Canada and set up a small business in Ottawa importing German wine and champagne. In 1914, he competed for Ottawa’s famous Minto ice-skating team, participating in the Ellis Memorial Trophy tournament in Boston in February.
It sounds like he actually had a significant life in Canada, even participating in a quintessentially Canadian sport, ice skating. In terms of the reference in Roth’s novel, it’s worth at least noting the use of the word “adventure,” as the idea that Europeans think of Canada as a romantic land of adventure is one that has come up before.
As for a high-ranking Nazi having lived in Canada (before he became a high-ranking Nazi, of course), I have to admit I had no idea. I suppose Ottawa and Montreal (understandably) don’t do anything to publicize the connection in their tourism materials.