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Nazis Have Upper Hand in Page-Turning ‘What-If’ WWII Novel ‘Rocket’s Red Glare’

“Rocket’s Red Glare: A WWII Era Alternative History Novel” is a deeply informed and wildly inventive re-imagining of America during the Second World War.
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July 21, 2020

“What if” is the classic starting point for speculative fiction. What if Nazi Germany had conquered Great Britain in 1940? That’s the premise of Len Deighton’s “SS-GB.” What if Germany and Japan had defeated the United States and divided up North America between them? Philip K. Dick imagined the scenario in “The Man in the High Castle.” And even a literary luminary like Philip Roth wondered what America would have looked like with Charles Lindbergh in the White House in “The Plot Against America.” One measure of the appeal of the what-if genre is that all three novels have now been turned into miniseries.

Now comes Cy Stein with “Rocket’s Red Glare: A WWII Era Alternative History Novel” (Abeel Street Press), a deeply informed and wildly inventive re-imagining of America during the Second World War. Like Roth, he puts Lindbergh in the White House as the successful candidate in the 1940 presidential election, an event that prefigures our own benighted times: “America is for Americans only!” is Lindbergh’s rallying cry. And when he welcomes the German ambassador, the Lone Eagle boasts that he has read “Mein Kampf.”

“Connected a lot of dots for me,” he says. “Especially about the Jews.”

But that’s only the beginning of Stein’s terrifying retelling of history. When England seeks military assistance from the United States, all that is offered is “Joseph P. Kennedy’s advice that all was lost.” Germany wins the Battle of Britain in Stein’s retelling, and both Churchill and the royal family flee to Canada. The Duke of Wales, restored to the throne, welcomes the victorious Wehrmacht as the head of a collaborationist government. Goering assures Hitler that the Soviet Union will fall next because “we have substantial support in America now,” including Lindbergh himself, whom he describes as an anti-Semite who “respects the vitality of National Socialism.”

Stein is a distinguished physician and scientist, but his ardor for historical fiction is plainly in evidence in “Rocket’s Red Glare.” Indeed, his previous novel, “The Medicus Codex,” featured a physician at large in ancient Rome, and he is equally adept at telling a tale set in the more recent past.

A young John F. Kennedy shows up to serve as the secret liaison between President Lindbergh and J. Edgar Hoover.

He introduces us to Sid Peskin, a young man whose New York childhood resembles the author’s own. “No matter how many games they lost, he never lost faith in his Dodgers” — the Brooklyn Dodgers, of course. His other passion is physics and math, which he studies at City College, “the Harvard of the proletariat.” Suddenly, the reader is shown an ominous sight on the streets of New York City — “three young men, all wearing brown shirts and swastika armbands,” who assault a Black student with their wooden clubs. The slouching beast of fascism has shown up on the streets of New York.

The cast of real-life characters that appears in “Rocket’s Red Glare” is startling. We encounter J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, among others, all of whom are clues to one strand of the twisted plot. So it’s no coincidence that Sid runs into Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the college cafeteria, and when Julius boasts openly about the Stalinist revolution that he aspires to see, Ethel admonishes him in a moment of dark and almost comic irony: “Julius, keep quiet, there are spies.”

Sometimes Stein recruits a thoroughly unexpected historical figure and assigns him a role in the story that will resonate for the reader in the here and now. A young John F. Kennedy shows up to serve as the secret liaison between President Lindbergh and J. Edgar Hoover. Gangster Louie “Lepke” Buchalter and visionary physicist Leo Szilard are odd bedfellows in the resistance to an American version of authoritarian rule. And Fred Trump, the father of our current president, shows up as the mayor of New York City, no less ambitious or offensive as his son. “I hate the Hebes because I know that under no circumstances will any of ’em listen to a goddam thing I have to say,” the elder Trump grumbles — and that’s the least abusive thing he has to say about the Jews.

With pots boiling on all burners, “Rocket’s Red Glare” is an authentic page-turner. It’s a potent blend of speculative fiction, political thriller and spy novel, and it’s not without a romantic subplot, too. (Sid’s girlfriend, Julia, wonders out loud “what happens when a Jewish guy kisses outside the faith.”) As ugly things begin to happen on the streets of New York, Stein also shows us the machinations that go on behind closed doors, both in the White House and among those who are struggling to spare America from the community spread of anti-Semitism. 

Stein manages to bring the furious plot to a satisfying resolution, although it would be unfair to the reader to disclose the surprises that are in store. He even succeeds in casting an oblique glance at the man who actually is the president of the United States. Perhaps the best way to put it is that no one who has read “The Plot Against America” will ever guess how “Rocket’s Red Glare” ends.

Like E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” Stein fills his book with real people and then puts them in unexpected roles in service of the story he tells. Given the dire circumstances that Stein evokes, the biggest surprise in “Rocket’s Red Glare” is how much fun it is to read. We just can’t wait to find out how it will all end, not only for the imaginary Sid and Julia, but for Fred Trump, too.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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