"I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word 'Liberty' today, after what the Republicans did to it!" ...

Book Review: It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis

"I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word 'Liberty' today, after what the Republicans did to it!"

It's 1936, and the American people are disillusioned and divided. The downtrodden have been trodden down for too long, and those in power have spent too many years helping out their rich friends and ignoring the Little Guy.

Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip says he has the solution. He claims that if he were President, every American family could have $5000 a year (though he hasn't quite worked out where that will come from, yet). He promises to return America to greatness, and be the first president to actually do something about Mexico, and the horrible and imaginary things that terrible neighbour gets away with and has gotten away with for so many years. He isn't afraid to lie, or even to be caught lying, because he believes that he is above the law. He is, after all, fighting for The People, and what they want. Or at least, what he tells them they want.

Yeah. I know. Chillingly familiar.

But where it gets less familiar - and will hopefully remain so - is after he becomes president, when he begins to send anyone who disagrees with him to concentration camps, if they're lucky enough to escape the grave. He sets up his own private army - the Minute Men - whom he uses to terrorise anyone who has a brain with which to think independent thoughts or a mouth with which to speak those thoughts. He declares a state of emergency, so that he can have complete power with no restrictions, until the country is sorted out.

But, of course, he has no intention of ever giving that power up.

It Can't Happen Here is a brilliant and scary look at how populist tyranny could take over a free, democratic and developed country like the USA, even if we think it couldn't. It was written for a different time, a terrifying and dark time in modern history, but its message and its content remains just as relevant today as it was then. Even the tactics and the words that Windrip uses to take the country hostage are no different than the ones we see on the news every day.

And that's part of what makes it a fantastic book. This isn't just an angry writer, so desperate to get a message across that he has sat at a table with a pen and some paper and written a sledgehammer story with which he means to smash the establishment; this is a well thought out, intricate and subtle idea that is so well executed that it really could happen, right now, right in front of us. It's hard to achieve, that level of subtlety which is required to make a story utterly believable and grounded; but it's something to aspire to.

There's more than that to it, though. It also has wit, and likeable characters, and intelligent dialogue. With such a heavy main plot, you'd imagine that the book would have to be a bit boring, a measure too sad to be funny. But it made me chuckle regularly - every few pages. There were even some jokes that I missed because I didn't know the famous people they were referring to, so if you're from the 30s you'll like it even more. Either way, that balance is required to lift you out of the depression of what's happening and make everything bearable, and I think Lewis nails it.

Wonderful inspiration for a writer in these times that can feel so horribly dark and dreary.

So, for readers, I recommend the book for its entertainment and political value; and for writers, I recommend it because it's an example of how to deal with such an important struggle with subtlety and wit, so that your reader realises that it can happen here. And for everyone, I recommend it because 1984 is tired now, and it's about time we all had another political story in our repertoire, whose relevance we can overstate at every opportunity, til we're all sick of hearing about it.


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