Kermit Roosevelt (yes, he is President Theodore Roosevelt’s great-great-grandson) has taken an incident in our country’s history and thrusts the reader straight back in time to explore the inner workings of what to most Americans is a lofty but unknown world, The Supreme Court. Allegiance is his well-drawn legal thriller that brings that period to life and involves the reader totally in its compelling plot.
Set during World War II, when then-President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that imprisoned Japanese=Americans in war camps, the author cannily focuses on one young Philadelphia lawyer and his experience to personalize and fictionalize that time in our history.
Caswell Harrison is known as Cash, and thinks he has his life on a known track, from his girlfriend to law school and after. Then Pearl Harbor occurs, and after flunking the army physical, Cash is given the honor of clerking for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Disappointed in not serving in the army, with his girlfriend unhappy that he is leaving her in Philly for Washington DC, Cash finally is convinced this is how he will serve his country.
He’s overwhelmed at first by the paperwork and learning how to fit in, but he soon adjusts, even to playing tennis with Justice Black at his home, where he becomes a substitute son for the justice’s own two enlisted sons. But soon he and a colleague uncover a conspiracy which points at pressure being brought to influence the Court’s decisions regarding these important cases.
It’s a difficult thing find evidence to prove, as the cases revolve around the constitutionality of the prison camps where the Japanese-Americans have been interred and documents they have been asked to sign. Then Cash’s friend and colleague dies under suspicious circumstances, and Cash finds himself embroiled in an surreptitious FBI investigation, colluding with J. Edgar Hoover himself to obtain evidence.
Along the way Cash will find himself questioning everything he thought he believed in–and everyone he thought he trusted. This could be called a loss of innocence story, and there is certainly that angle to the novel, but it’s more about Cash finding his true self and his values while he finds out just how good a lawyer his can be.
There are plenty of figures from history who are portrayed accurately and brought to life bedside Hoover and Black, such as Felix Frankfurter and Francis Biddle. And his exhaustive research informs the law around the cases of Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Endo that formed so much of the lasting history of this time. The time period is reflected accurately, from the clothing to the mores of our culture in the era.
It’s also a crime novel at its heart that is based on a thoughtful examination of our country and the values. In the author’s words: ” . . . the story I tell through my hero is that good people can do bad things. The internment decision has the form of a basic moral dilemma: when is it okay to hurt some people to help others?”
It’s a fascinating question that Roosevelt thoughtfully examines through Cash, and readers will easily be caught up this legal thriller that examines one of the worst civil rights violations in our country’s history.
Roosevelt’s knowledge and experience include clerking for DC Circuit Judge Stephen Williams and Supreme Court Justice David Souter before becoming a professor of constitutional law and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.