Being Polite to Hitler

In Robb Forman Dew's multi-generational trilogy set in Washburn, Ohio, "the profound and the mundane are joined at the hip"—as they are in life. Her saga is thus at once narrowly focused and expansive, microscopic and macroscopic, personal and political. Evoking both Anne Tyler (especially The Amateur Marriage) and Evan Connell's Mrs. Bridge, Dew writes about fortunate middle Americans who go through life absorbed by petty and intimate details, and are only infrequently focused on weightier world events, "the atmosphere in which they lived."


In The Evidence Against Her (2001), The Truth of the Matter (2005), and now Being Polite to Hitler, Dew spins an intricate, occasionally plodding, but cumulatively addictive story rooted in the lives of three close friends all born on the same day, September 15, 1888, in Washburn, 45 miles east of Columbus. She follows them through two world wars, family upheavals, marriages, and offspring. Lily Scofield and Robert Butler—Dew's tribute to her maternal grandfather, Kenyon Review founder John Crowe Ransom—marry each other. The third member of the trio is Lily's first cousin Warren Scofield. He weds Agnes Claytor, a local woman 11 years younger, who becomes the linchpin of all three books.


Being Polite to Hitler picks up the Scofield story in 1953, in an industrious post-war America "glisten[ing] with well-being" yet shadowed by "an unacknowledged dread and anticipation of some sort of retribution for having perpetrated an act of aggression previously unmatched by any other country." Spanning 20 years of momentous change in American society, including the Cold War, the space race, and the Civil Rights movement, it takes its peculiar title from Agnes' daughter-in-law's exasperation with people not speaking up for principles but instead clinging to propriety and etiquette, ever in danger of failing to distinguish "those rare occasions when it was, in fact, Hitler to whom you were extending such instinctive courtesy, and therefore it was time, at last, to abandon any niceties at all."


At 54, Agnes, long widowed and long working as an uncomfortable third grade teacher, is "bottomed-out"—tired beyond her years—and ready to stop deferring politely to anyone. When her younger, almost too-good-to-be-true friend, Sam Holloway, asks her to marry him, she decides to ignore her grown children's objections. "It was about reclaiming and slaking her own desires after the long years of their being defined by the people to and for whom she felt responsible…she had become indifferent to anyone else's opinion of her. Well, not indifferent, but disengaged in the effort to sway them to view her favorably."


Dew's prose is unrushed, and occasionally marred by too much telling and not enough showing, as teachers like Agnes might say. But there are also lovely passages that capture the tone of small-town life in less hectic times: "The crackling, dry hot air of Washburn smelled like freshly ironed shirts, and Agnes felt as though she were being turned to Melba Toast in a slow oven. Any curiosity, any energy or animation, had evaporated, leaving behind only a flat, dry, gingerbread man of herself."


Like Anne Tyler, Dew makes the case that there's no such thing as an ordinary person. She occasionally strains all-too-visibly to broaden her narrative, resulting in some jarring shifts to follow the life of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun in Alabama. Her characters, meanwhile, strive more convincingly to reconcile their ongoing pursuit of happiness and their optimism on a personal level with what they gradually come to recognize as a bleak universal picture. This, it turns out, is the real rub between the profound and the mundane, and one of life's great challenges.

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