BEING POLITE TO HITLER by Robb Foreman Dew
“She had come to grips with the fact that if she allowed herself always to consider everything she knew… well, she doubted if she might even bother to get out of bed in the morning. Sometime after she became a wife and then a parent, after she slowly gathered the idea that no one she loved was immune from the perils of the earth…. At some point she finally realized that all of the things that are always true are always true all of the time.”
Review by Roger Brunyate В (FEB 10, 2011)
These thoughts hover in the mind of the protagonist of this uneventful but satisfying novel-memoir, Agnes Scofield, a once-feisty widowed schoolteacher living in a community of intricately enlaced relatives and friends. The year is 1953; the place a small town in mid-Ohio called Washburn. Everybody seems to know everybody else, but nobody is immune from the fallout of events in the outside world.
The arresting title phrase actually has very little to do with the story, but its use is emblematic of Robb Forman Dew’s approach, where the reactions of an individual to outside events must be moderated to conform to the norms of her immediate circle. It is uttered in exasperation halfway through the book by Agnes’ daughter-in-law Lavinia, one of the few wives in the close-knit family of Scofields and Claytors who originally came from somewhere else. Lavinia has committed the cardinal sin of expressing her political opinions (in this case, outrage at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenbergs) in the midst of a Christmas gathering of relatives and neighbors. She has already offended their dress code; now she flouts their conversational norms that involve, among other things, turning a blind eye to bigotry.
Dew structures her book in expanding circles. At the center are a few independent individuals like Agnes and Lavinia, both of whom in different ways are nearing the end of their patience. In the middle are all those relatives and neighbors, so intricately interlinked that I needed to spend half and hour drawing up a family tree to keep them all straight (though their group unity may well be more important to the author than their individuality). Beyond this circle are the events of the outside world: memories of the War, of the first atomic bombs, Eisenhower-era politics, the threat of polio, the doomsday clock, and fallout shelters. Indeed, the fallout shelter is a good metaphor for the community itself, as it tries to maintain an oasis of cheerful normality in a world with a traumatic past and uncertain future. The first two-thirds of the book are the portrait of an era, of a small-town middle America simultaneously turned in upon itself and facing outwards, enjoying the dawn of a new prosperity but paranoid about Cold War threats and Communist spies.
But Agnes Scofield has entertained occasional dreams of a different life. “She liked the idea of herself as briskly efficient, her possessions pared down to an elegant and practical few. She wouldn’t give up using the linen napkins, for instance, but she would distribute each child’s several scrap-books, as well as the pair of lamps consisting of bare-breasted bronze-draped ladies bearing lightbulbs in their raised hands. The endless silver trays and bowls and platters packed away with other mysterious silver oddments, as well as the ponderous furniture built specifically to house them.” So when the year suddenly jumps forward to 1957, with Sputnik and school integration, and lurches again to 1963, with the Birmingham church bombing and the Kennedy assassination, it should not be a surprise to find that Agnes has acquired a partner, a dog, and a summer house in Maine. The novel now becomes much more her story, rather than that of the community; the enclosing circles have been broken. There are more events in this final section, but less connection; the book loses that intense focus on place and time that so distinguished it earlier.
I now understand that this book is the third volume of a trilogy, with The Evidence Against Her and The Truth of the Matter telling the earlier stages of Agnes Scofield’s life. This may explain why it is so hard to disentangle her extended clan when reading this volume alone. It may also explain the author’s need to move the story forward, even at the expense of attenuating her earlier achievement. Not having read the first two books, I cannot be sure, but suspect there is an element of family biography here; the novel is continually edging into the world of memoir. Although given a different name, the nearby college to Washburn is clearly Kenyon, where the author’s grandfather John Crowe Ransom founded the Kenyon Review. Agnes’ brother-in-law Robert Butler teaches at the college, and real-life faculty members Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and William Empson make cameo appearances. It must have been a heady, even intimidating environment — but perhaps both Agnes and the author find peace in being able to escape from time to time. I like Agnes and rejoice in the contentment she seems to have found at the end. But though the fifties world reminded me occasionally of John Updike, and Agnes herself of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, the reader will not find the hard edge of either of these authors. Its absence, though, may well be the book’s charm.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 7 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (January 6, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia Page on Robb Foreman Dew|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley
Agnes Scofield series:
- The Evidence Against Her: (2001)
- The Truth of the Matter (2005)
- Being Polite to Hitler (January 2011)