Alternative history is a genre in literature that poses a question by the author, “What if things had gone this way instead of that?” This both entertains and frightens us, and makes us think harder about the reality with which we’ve all had to deal. My personal favorite alternative history — which nobody has written yet — is: What if Founding Father John Adams had listened to his brilliant wife Abigail’s constant entreaties in her letters to grant women the vote along with men? Would this have moved us to abandon slavery without war, offered free college education from, say, 1780 onward, and given us the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt as president?
Islander Myra Stark, a teacher at Columbia University for 14 years with degrees from Columbia and NYU, theater maven, and lit queen with a particular attachment to Victorian literature, has selected two alternative history novels to present as separate lecture-discussions at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.
On Sunday, Feb. 5, from 10 am to 12 pm, she will dissect Philip Roth’s 2004 bestseller, “The Plot Against America.” Roth’s story is part memoir about growing up in the Weequahic section of Newark, except in this alternative history, aviator hero Charles Lindbergh rode his popularity to beat out F.D.R. in the 1940 presidential race. In reality, or at least in this parallel universe to which we’ve accustomed ourselves, Lindbergh attracted some horrifically bad press from his bromance with Adolph Hitler. The pilot was pushing for an isolationism that would have kept us out of the war, co-founding a political party called America First.
(A side note: A few years back I published an online article about the [true!] fact that Charles Lindbergh and his wife and family, after generating media distaste for his Nazi sympathies, escaped to Martha’s Vineyard where his friend, movie star James Cagney, told him he would find a perfect sea-and-woodlands bolthole. And he did. The Lindbergh family lived incognito up-Island in the early 1940s. A minute after my story went online, I received an email from the present director of America First. Yes, the organization lives on in some kind of modest existence, hopefully in a church basement with constantly dripping walls. The director assured me the group was no longer anti-Semitic, “although we still occasionally publish an essay against Israel.”)
In “The Plot Against America,” a bond is forged between the U.S. and Germany, and the Nazis are allowed to invade the world to their hearts’ content. Meanwhile, the States see a rise in anti-Semitism. The Roth family goes about its normal business, as borrowed from Mr. Roth’s actual life, but they are oppressed by the new rules affecting Jews. Deportations begin with hauling Jewish kids off to resettlement in the South or Midwest in an effort to “Americanize” them. Philip’s brother Stanley undergoes this treatment. When he returns to his family, he’s contemptuous of their cultural traits and calls them “Ghetto Jews.”
There’s a lot more to the story, including Walter Winchell having the gall to criticize President Lindbergh, whereupon his TV network fires him. Is it any wonder that Ms. Stark has cleverly chosen a book that may shed light on these odd times we’re living through? Mr. Roth himself was recently asked in the New Yorker about “The Plot Against America” as a novelistic companion piece to our very real election and a nation divided. Mr. Roth said, “All I do is to defatilize the past — if such a word exists — showing how it might have been different and might have happened here.”
He also acknowledged, “I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
On March 19, Ms. Stark will take on another wild alternative history novel. This one, written by Michael Chabon, was released in 2007. Chabon is author of, among others, “The Wonder Boys” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” Ms Stark’s pick of his canon is “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” In this book, we re-engage in WWII. The American Congress votes to resettle persecuted Jews in Sitka, Alaska, where they are faced with a hostile native community.
Sitka, situated on the coast, grows into a Yiddish-speaking metropolis, but its days are literally numbered: The federal district was granted for only 60 years, after which the land reverts to the state of Alaska. If this sounds like too much politicizing or bemoaning the fate of an involuntarily nomadic group, rest assured that the story is rendered in a beloved genre: the noir detective novel. Move over, Raymond Chandler.
Sitka homicide detective Meyer Landsman has all the usual hardboiled qualities. Alcoholic: check! Living low in a shabby hotel: check! Cynical: check! The day begins when a murdered body is found in another room of Mr. Landsman’s hotel. There’s an unfinished chess game left beside the corpse which, of course, will yield an ingenious clue.
Both novels will serve as wonderful starting points for engaged conversation. As Ms. Stark said in a recent phone interview, “Both books take the moral temperature of our times.”
Myra Stark presents “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth, Sunday, Feb. 5, from 10 am to 12 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven; “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon, Sunday, March 12, 10 am to 12 pm, also at the Hebrew Center.