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 inlife. Her saga is thus at once narrowly focused and expansive, microscopic andmacroscopic, personal and political. Evoking both Anne Tyler (especially The Amateur Marriage) and Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Dew writes about fortunate middle Americans who gothrough life absorbed by petty and intimate details, and are only infrequentlyfocused on weightier world events, “the atmosphere in which theylived.”

InThe Evidence Against Her (2001), TheTruth of the Matter (2005), and now BeingPolite to Hitler, Dew spins an intricate, occasionally plodding, butcumulatively addictive story rooted in the lives of three close friends allborn on the same day, September 15, 1888, in Washburn, 45 miles east ofColumbus. She follows them through two world wars, family upheavals, marriages,and offspring. Lily Scofield and Robert Butler—Dew’s tribute to her maternalgrandfather, Kenyon Review founderJohn Crowe Ransom—marry each other. The third member of the trio is Lily’sfirst cousin Warren Scofield. He weds Agnes Claytor, a local woman 11 yearsyounger, who becomes the linchpin of all three books.

Being Polite to Hitler picks up the Scofield story in 1953, in an industriouspost-war America “glisten[ing] with well-being” yet shadowed by”an unacknowledged dread and anticipation of some sort of retribution forhaving perpetrated an act of aggression previously unmatched by any othercountry.” Spanning 20 years of momentous change in American society,including the Cold War, the space race, and the Civil Rights movement, it takesits peculiar title from Agnes’ daughter-in-law’s exasperation with people notspeaking up for principles but instead clinging to propriety and etiquette,ever in danger of failing to distinguish “those rare occasions when itwas, in fact, Hitler to whom you wereextending such instinctive courtesy, and therefore it was time, at last, toabandon any niceties at all.”

At54, Agnes, long widowed and long working as an uncomfortable third gradeteacher, is “bottomed-out”—tired beyond her years—and ready to stopdeferring politely to anyone. When her younger, almost too-good-to-be-truefriend, Sam Holloway, asks her to marry him, she decides to ignore her grownchildren’s objections. “It was about reclaiming and slaking her owndesires after the long years of their being defined by the people to and forwhom she felt responsible…she had become indifferent to anyone else’s opinionof her. Well, not indifferent, but disengaged in the effort to sway them toview her favorably.”

Dew’sprose is unrushed, and occasionally marred by too much telling and not enoughshowing, as teachers like Agnes might say. But there are also lovely passagesthat capture the tone of small-town life in less hectic times: “Thecrackling, dry hot air of Washburn smelled like freshly ironed shirts, andAgnes felt as though she were being turned to Melba Toast in a slow oven. Anycuriosity, any energy or animation, had evaporated, leaving behind only a flat,dry, gingerbread man of herself.”

LikeAnne Tyler, Dew makes the case that there’s no such thing as an ordinaryperson. She occasionally strains all-too-visibly to broaden her narrative,resulting in some jarring shifts to follow the life of rocket scientist Wernhervon Braun in Alabama. Her characters, meanwhile, strive more convincingly toreconcile their ongoing pursuit of happiness and their optimism on a personallevel 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 oflife’s great challenges.