A widow in postwar America takes stock of her life in this latest novel by a National Book Award winner.
Agnes Scofield is a woman not so different from you or me. She's rather ordinary, a kind and pleasant schoolteacher in Washburn, Ohio, in the early 1950s, with an extended family, most of whom live nearby. She's a widow, at least in the beginning of this very fine novel, who lost her husband, Warren -- we learn later in evocatively written prose -- in a tragic auto accident: "Warren and his uncle Leo Scofield had been thrown a good six feet on either side of the car, against the brittle brown grass, among the fallen, withered leaves, and the spiky stalks of reeds, and killed instantly by the impact."
But Agnes has recovered from Warren's death and lives her life with her family and friends. And this is what "Being Polite to Hitler" is all about: a 20-year sliver of Agnes Scofield's life. Robb Forman Dew, who won a National Book Award in 1982 for "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," has captured again, beautifully, the poetry of the everyday. Her narrative flows effortlessly from character to character, from voice to voice, as does her sense of time, from present to future to past and back again.
Not all who inhabit this book are as even-keeled as Agnes (who at times may be even a little dull); daughter-in-law Lavinia, for example -- described by her husband (Agnes' son), Claytor, as not pretty, "but she was striking and often beautiful and was the most interesting woman he had ever met" -- has a hot temper and it's her words that lead to the book's title.
At a party, angered by a comment on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's execution for treason from someone Claytor has known all his life ("Buddy's a horse's ass. He's always been a horse's ass -- my God! Even in the second grade."), forthright Lavinia asks with exasperation: "What's the matter with the rest of you? You think it would be better just to keep sitting there being polite to Hitler?"
Dew's elegant words capture personalities so well (Sam "always either knew exactly what to do or believed that he did, which pretty much amounted to the same thing"), as well as setting ("Fall was dispiritedly colorless except for an occasional red flash of weedy sumac"). Her characters live with the events of the day (the nuclear anxiety of the Cold War, polio, the Civil Rights Act, JFK's assassination) and brush lives with real people, including poet Robert Lowell (Dew's grandfather was poet and Kenyon Review editor John Crowe Ransom). In "Being Polite to Hitler," with lush, graceful language, Robb Forman Dew reminds us that much of what we consider to be ordinary in our lives, in the end, turns out to be quite extraordinary.
Jim Carmin, a writer in Portland, Ore., reviews fiction for the Oregonian and poetry for Cerise Press and Solar Mirage.