The New York Times Book Review
Being Polite to Hitlerby Robb Forman Dew
Often eloquent, sometimes blunt, and always full of fire, The Scofield clan is not a family that keeps its opinions to itself. As
After teaching and raising her family for most of her life, Agnes Scofield realizes that she is truly weary of the routine her life has become. But how, at 51, can she establish an identity apart from what has so long defined her?
Often eloquent, sometimes blunt, and always full of fire, The Scofield clan is not a family that keeps its opinions to itself. As much as she'd like to, Agnes can no more deflect their adamant advice than she can step down as their matriarch. And despite her newfound freedom, Agnes finds herself becoming even more entangled in the family web. She shepherds her daughter-in-law, Lavinia, who moves in with her own two daughters to escape her husband's drinking. She puts out fires, smoothes fraying nerves, and, stunned as anyone, receives a marriage proposal. Having expected her life to become smaller, Agnes is amazed to see it grow instead.
Robb Forman Dew intricately weaves together personal and family life into a richly wrought tapestry of the country in the 1950s and beyond. Being Polite to Hitler is a moving, frank, and surprising portrait of post-World War II America.
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The third installment of Dew's portrait of the Scofield clan of Washburn, Ohio (The Truth of the Matter, 2005, etc.), focuses on the aging of matriarch Agnes.
When the novel opens in 1953, Agnes is in her early 50s, long widowed and living alone in the big old Scofield manse, which she can barely maintain on her teacher's salary. Now that her three older children, Claytor, Betts and Dwight (actually her much younger brother but raised as a son), are married and raising their own families with varying success, while the youngest, Howard, is about to marry, Agnes's maternal interest does not stretch much beyond dutiful. She receives comically awkward overtures of affection from a clueless filmmaker intent on documenting daily life in Washburn. The fact that the filmmaker is tone-deaf to the nuances of the lives he follows is the novel's best, slightly mean joke. Agnes's real suitor is Sam Holloway. Her son-in-law Will's business partner, Sam is considerably younger than Agnes but proves a perfectly companionable and practical mate. More passionate, though not by much, is alcoholic Claytor's relationship with his Southern wife Lavinia, who eschews the prevalent Midwestern decorum, a combination of restraint and etiquette that she derides in a speech that gives the novel its title. Lavinia is the only source of energy among carefully self-controlled characters in a formal narrative that mirrors too closely the very midcentury, Middle American reserve being recorded. The second half of the novel passes in quick succession through the later'50s and'60s and into the early'70s, recording births, illnesses, family gatherings and small crises but no serious drama. Most interesting are historical tidbits Dew drops in, from the polio epidemic of the'50s to Wernher von Braun's reaction to JFK's death to the desegregation of Little Rock's high school.
The fictional characters, so vivid in The Evidence Against Her (2001), have paled as they have aged, and even the passions of the younger generation are too muted to engage the reader.
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Read an Excerpt
Being Polite to HitlerA Novel
By Dew, Robb Forman
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Dew, Robb Forman
All right reserved.
A GNES SCOFIELD didn’t know—nor would she have cared—that at precisely the moment she gave up her pretense of disinterest and lost touch altogether with her common sense, the Mississippi River reached its lowest level in history farther south in Memphis, Tennessee. As did the Kokosing River, right there in Washburn, Ohio, on the Monday afternoon of October 5, 1953, as it made its sluggish progress past the industries that had grown up along its banks.
Since early spring a drought had overspread most of the country, extracting energy from every source available and causing extreme reactions on the part of all manner of plant and animal species. Locally, however, no one in Washburn gave much thought to the communal stress caused by the prolonged and extreme heat and the lack of rain. It would be unseemly, in October, to complain about heat and light when generally the weather at that time of year would be shifting toward fall and the short, gray days and the often painful cold of winter.
On Saturday, October 3, the Brooklyn Dodgers had tied the Yankees at two games each in the 1953 World Series, but she had listened to game five on Sunday afternoon with her youngest son, Howard, and Sam Holloway, who had dropped by with tomatoes from his garden and stayed on to hear the game. It had been a blowout: eleven to seven Yankees, but Agnes remained optimistic, and Sam pretended to believe there was still hope, because he hated seeing Agnes disappointed. Having grown up in southern Louisiana, where football reigned, Sam had never known any woman—any family—as passionate about baseball as was Agnes Scofield and the assorted lot of people who were more or less related to her. Any one of them could generally be found at her house during a game—just stopping by briefly to catch the score or settled for an afternoon or evening on the wide back porch, where two radios were set to different stations if both the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds happened to have games scheduled at the same time.
Sam himself had slowly been converted from the adrenaline surge of an LSU football game on Saturday nights to the subtle and sometimes excruciating tension and obsessive statistic keeping of the game of baseball. In fact, it was Sam’s idea to set up Agnes’s schoolroom with some of the trappings of a genuine ballpark so that she and her third-grade students could listen to game six.
He went to some lengths to make arrangements for Agnes’s class to listen to that sixth game, which was broadcast live at noon on Monday. He brought his radio from home, tuned it to the right station, and left it centered on her desk in her classroom at Jesser Grammar School. At lunchtime, instead of filing into the cafeteria after “big recess,” her third-grade students returned to the classroom for what Agnes had explained to them would be an “afternoon at the ballpark.” Sam had called in a favor from the Eola Arms Hotel, where he conducted a lot of business, and two of their kitchen staff set up a buffet table at the back of the room from which Agnes served potato salad, baked beans, and hot dogs from a chafing dish. She dressed the hot dogs with each child’s choice of condiments as he or she filed past one by one.
As Mr. Byerly, head of the Eola Arms crew, directed the clearing away—including the buffet table itself and other assorted equipment—Agnes invited him and his two helpers to stay and listen to the game as well, but Mr. Byerly said he knew he wouldn’t be able to stand it with the Yankees likely to win the series again.
As the game progressed inning by inning, Agnes passed out twenty-eight boxes of Cracker Jacks and, in the seventh inning, twenty-eight bags of Tom’s Toasted Peanuts. The hotel had also provided Coca-Cola, root beer, and Nehi grape and orange soda, all bought out of Sam’s own pocket, Agnes imagined, but set up for her in an ice-filled tub by the Eola Arms crew.
Some of her students didn’t know what this particular event was all about; they weren’t sure what the World Series consisted of, especially the girls, but no one had any complaints. Sharon Kuhlman, for instance, who was eight years old, didn’t discover that the World Series was not always a game between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers until her first year of college in Bennington, Vermont. She had made a point in her life, as soon as she was old enough to realize she had a choice, of ignoring athletics altogether as an anti-intellectual pursuit. But in her first year away at an all-women’s school, she fell in love with a boy from Williams College, thirty miles south of Bennington, who happened to be on the college’s baseball team. His major, though, was art history, which, in Sharon’s view, made his interest in sports endearing.
But in Sharon’s third-grade classroom during the sixth game of the World Series in 1953, she pretended enthusiasm when any of her classmates cheered. Otherwise she simply enjoyed the freedom to color or paint or read any of the books Mrs. Scofield provided in low bookcases at the back of the classroom.
As the game wound on, though, and the excitement of unlimited Coca-Cola and the inevitably disappointing Cracker Jack prizes wore off, Mrs. Scofield resorted to busying those students less self-sufficient than Sharon Kuhlman with a jigsaw puzzle she had spread out on a card table. She encouraged freehand drawing and watercolor painting, and she even agreed to the paper-airplane-folding-and-distance competition. But the children’s sweaty hands smudged their artistic efforts and wilted and grubbied the crisp upturned wings of their white paper planes. An air of petulance hung in the classroom as the heat intensified throughout the afternoon inside the unshaded, wedding-cake-white-embellished but otherwise dark redbrick box of Jesser Grammar School. And, as the Yankees’ Billy Martin got hit after hit, Agnes, too, grew disconsolate, although she believed she was successful in not showing her disappointment.
By the time the game ended, the Yankees had clinched the series, beating the Dodgers four games to two for their fifth consecutive World Series win. Ricky Johnson and Adrian McConnell—who were best friends but each a passionate fan of those separate opposing teams—erupted from their desks into a shoving match in the aisle. The confrontation escalated into punches thrown and furious name-calling. Agnes came from behind her desk and stooped to separate the boys. Ricky was red-faced with heat and despair, and Adrian was also overheated but fervently triumphant.
Agnes grabbed the backs of their sweat-dampened collars as if they were rabbits, and pulled them apart, but just at that moment Adrian sprang backwards, and his head slammed against Agnes’s temple. She exhaled a sharp “Ah!” of surprise and put her hand to her head, and each boy immediately subsided into his desk across the aisle from the other. They were still so mad at each other, though, and horrified by Mrs. Scofield’s dismay, that they dissolved into tears, as did Agnes Scofield herself, to the consternation of her dumbstruck students.
The classroom became unnaturally quiet as Mrs. Scofield continued to speak to Ricky and Adrian without any quaver of crying in her voice, but with tears running freely down her face. As she spoke, she stroked a gentle circle with the tips of her fingers over the side of her head that had collided with Adrian McConnell’s. “… and you both know better! You both… Being a good sport about losing—and winning, too…” She wasn’t aware that she was crying, but her voice floated away without resonating in her own mind as the pain of the collision briefly blossomed across her forehead and the bridge of her nose and shockingly deep behind her eyes and along her cheekbones.
She paused midsentence and briefly closed her eyes until the pain subsided a bit, and then she carried on, carefully looking out the window so the children wouldn’t notice her distress. She aimed her gaze above her students’ heads at the dry playground, but she found no consolation there. The jungle gym glinted white in the appalling glare, and the swings baked in the sun just beyond the shade of the single, ancient walnut tree, under which the girls played jacks at recess. “… learning how to lose is part of growing up,” she said. But she knew what she was saying was nonsense; it was only ever possible to pretend not to mind losing: Losing was always terrible.
Agnes’s head hurt; her lips were chapped and dry, and yet the nape of her neck was damp and her collar clammy with perspiration. “And learning to win without bragging—especially if you’re a Yankees fan”—her own voice suddenly broke tearfully—“and your best friend’s team loses to them for the second year in a row…” Ricky and Adrian were all attention, as was the rest of the class, and the steady throbbing of her head as well as her own bitter disappointment hit Agnes like a ton of bricks, transforming the brief welling-up of tears into a genuine sob, which was interrupted by the final bell. She was able to pull herself together while the children gathered their things and fell into place in the separate girls’ or boys’ line, departing in opposite directions in relatively good order.
As the summer of 1953 had dwindled toward autumn across much of the United States—in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Washington, DC—the unusually dry, hot weather, which had first manifested itself in June, held fast, and anyone whose livelihood depended solely upon agriculture became edgy and preoccupied by the relentlessly sunny days. Small farmers were worried, of course, but not nearly so anxious as the major national and international brokerage houses, newly invested in the booming postwar food-processing industry, pesticide manufacturing, and grain and sugar importing and exporting. That a prolonged arid season had stalled over much of the United States and part of Canada was of interest worldwide, and a change in the weather was hoped for by powerful industrialists, major and minor bureaucrats, and a variety of businessmen all over the world.
Residents of the stricken areas were far less aware of the consequences of the drought, even though most endured a mild variation of grief as the climate continued to confound their expectations. But who could complain about the dazzlingly clear skies and weekend after weekend of being able to go fishing, or swimming, or golfing? What a boon it was to busy mothers that, day after day, their children could play outside from morning till night.
Gardeners, however, from Indiana to Washington State were at liberty to bemoan the dry pods of overlarge pole beans, the stunted corn. And, too, anyone whose household relied upon a private well was free to complain about having to abandon watering the arduously cultivated but frivolous flower beds in order to save the tomato plants and melons.
Late in September and into early October, the crop damage from the drought had already been done, but, still, the peculiarly dry, hot, windy weather didn’t abate. Day after day an unarticulated discontent grew even among people who had no stake at all in agriculture, commercial or otherwise. Even people who never set foot in a garden grew short-tempered and uneasy, although it remained the case that the general edginess wasn’t recognized collectively. Most people blamed their disquiet, if any, on issues particular to their own lives, and certainly those tensions were at a peak under the persistently bright, sunny, rainless skies.
Agnes, in her deserted third-grade classroom, collected the children’s artwork, picked up the paper airplanes, and straightened the desks into neat rows; she leaned out the window to clap the erasers clean in a cloud of chalk and then returned them to the shelf beneath the blackboard. She boxed up and put away the jigsaw puzzle and folded the card table. She straightened the room by rote, all the while thinking how much she hated the Yankees, hated Billy Martin and his shoddy life… Mickey Mantle, with his pugnacious but smarmy boy-next-door expression that didn’t quite disguise what Agnes believed to be an underlying nastiness. She pegged him as a slyly disguised bully. She didn’t even have a kind thought for Yogi Berra, too cute by half. It simply wasn’t fair… and what sort of parents would allow their son to be a Yankees fan?
She sat down again at her desk, in a sudden clutch of panicky breathlessness. It was a sensation she had recently begun to notice with fair regularity, and she sat very straight with the heel of her hand against her chest, imagining she would feel the odd flutter beneath her palm, imagining she could quiet it with applied pressure. She concentrated on slowing her breathing, and although she could not, after all, find any rushing pulse beneath her hand, that unnerving internal quaking did begin to ease, and her breathing became less ragged.
She slumped once more against the back of her chair and took a deep breath, which turned into a sigh as she exhaled. It was only October and all at once she was assailed by the fact of all the many long days remaining in the school year. She glanced out the windows, again, in the idle hope of a mitigating distraction, but the arid landscape offered her nothing more than a visual manifestation of persistence under duress.
She never wanted to teach another day in her life! That realization finally eclipsed her disappointment over the ball game, overshadowed the throbbing pain in her temple, and came full into her mind, at precisely the moment regional waterways reached their shallowest levels of the century. Of course, Agnes had no idea of that fact, and perhaps it had nothing at all to do with her own bottoming-out.
Once the notion of being free of her teaching responsibilities solidified, however, she recognized the inflexibility of it. But she also had to take into account the fact that she was just over fifty years old and couldn’t possibly afford to retire, and her eyes filled with tears once again, which embarrassed her even though she was all by herself.
Julian Brightman, the documentary filmmaker, viewed the long, dry spell of weather as a godsend; he hadn’t had to postpone filming for a single day since he had arrived in Washburn in mid-June. But the heat did make it hard to sleep in his third-floor hotel room. The temperature rarely dropped below ninety degrees all night, and for weeks now he had slept in only three- or four-hour intervals of tossing and turning, rotating his pillow when one side was damp with sweat. Each morning, he awoke feeling unrested and dissatisfied until he raised the shade and the brilliant, flat, white light streamed through the window of the Eola Arms Hotel. And each morning, the early traffic of cars and delivery trucks and pedestrians on and around Monument Square, directly across from the hotel, filled him with unexpected and expansive elation.
On that same first Monday in October, Julian gazed out at the people of Washburn taking up their various everyday lives on a day when it was unlikely that any devastating surprises would be visited upon their tidy, bustling community. Of course, he knew that they had no idea of the luxury they enjoyed, which made them doubly fortunate. Mr. Brightman wasn’t a petty man; he didn’t begrudge these luckiest people on earth their safety, their freedom to engage in ordinary pursuits. What he did feel toward the people of Washburn that morning was a tender beneficence as he stood at his window, planning the day’s filming. He would make a record of these people moving about with unself-conscious ease, walking along the sidewalk or sitting down on a bench to read a newspaper without the slightest hesitation. The very fact of their existence seemed to him to be the bedrock of any hopefulness left in the world.
In the hotel’s shadowy dining room Julian sat gazing out at the light reflected off the automobiles, a newspaper stand, a metal awning, and it seemed to him that the fearlessness of everyday life in the United States made Americans glisten with well-being. He was determined to illustrate their conscientiousness, as well, their industry; he wanted to illuminate their good-natured diligence, which he admired with a nearly familial and entirely sentimental indulgence, as he sat sipping his coffee. For a moment he was so intoxicated with affection for every single citizen of Washburn that it was as if he had suddenly fallen head over heels in love. He hurriedly finished his breakfast, all the while looking forward to the day’s work, during which he and his assistant, Franklin Cramer, would film an example of a day in the life of an ordinary American doctor.
Julian had already completed The Town, and The Businessman, and had begun filming The Doctor in mid-August. If everything continued to go smoothly, he expected that by the end of November he would be finished with the final three films, The School, The Working Man, and Growth and Progress—for which he already had bits of footage. So far, Dr. Edwin Caldwell, a retired physician who was cast in the leading role of The Doctor, was proving to be the easiest to work with of all the townspeople who had agreed to participate as characters in the films, essentially, of course, merely playing themselves.
As a very young boy, Julian had been that unusually gratifying child who was truly mesmerized by the tales told by the missionaries who visited and spoke at his father’s Presbyterian church in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Eventually he followed in their footsteps, more or less, giving up his studies at the Union Theological Seminary in order to travel and record the actualities of the world. In 1932 he returned from Russia with remarkable film footage of the day-to-day life of the people of the Soviet Union, and he launched a secular, educational lecture tour of his own.
He was invited to speak at Rotary clubs and Masonic lodges and other civic associations all across the country, to ladies’ garden clubs, and at small libraries as well as a few charitable organizations attempting to serve the population of immigrants fleeing Stalin. It was among the latter group that his film of village life in rural Russia produced consternation, although Julian was never aware of the occasional emotional havoc that often befell certain members of his audience. The film put forth at face value the legitimacy of his representation of the Russian sites to which he had been given free access: charming locales with market shelves fully stocked, abundance in every household, earnest delight on every peasant’s rough-hewn face.
He had made that film while in the constant company of his Russian guides; otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to get around the country at all, nor would he have understood much that was said. Generally, as he traveled across the United States, any foreigners in his audience chose merely to be politely noncommittal. In Chicago, however, Professor Vladimir Ipatieff and his wife, who were recent émigrés from Moscow, attended a presentation of Julian’s film, and they remained in their seats while the lights came up and the audience slowly took its leave. Professor Ipatieff proclaimed Julian’s tidy, hour-long presentation criminally fatuous. He said so in his own language and quite loudly to his wife, who sat next to him silently, her eyes filled with tears.
They both were stunned and exhausted by the realization of the extent to which the situation of their native country—where their four grown children remained—was misunderstood. The professor was bitterly angry and loud-voiced and his wife was grief-stricken, but Julian, who had mastered only a smattering of Russian, couldn’t follow their rapid speech and assumed they were grappling with homesickness brought about by scenes so familiar to them. He nodded in recognition and directed an inclusive, knowing, and vaguely conspiratorial smile in their direction as he packed away the projector.
But in 1939 Julian interrupted his vacation in Switzerland for a brief foray to Poland, with the intention of filming behind the lines of a country that would soon be under siege by the Germans. When he arrived in Warsaw, however, he discovered that not only had the Polish government fled the city but so had all the foreign correspondents. He found, as well, that there were no battle lines as far as the citizens of Poland were concerned; the Nazis were waging war upon the civilians.
One day he stopped his borrowed car on the outskirts of Warsaw, where he had unexpectedly come upon a bucolic scene of women working industriously in the fields of a distant farmhouse. He parked beneath the spreading, intertwined branches of enormous old trees and set up his camera on the road so he could film at a distance without interrupting them as the women bent steadily to their task, their skirts pulled back to front between their legs and tucked into their waistbands for efficiency and to fashion two hammock-like aprons for holding whatever they were harvesting. They didn’t even interrupt their work to glance his way when their children spotted him and pointed and exclaimed. They made a pastoral tableau with their kerchiefs tied over their hair, and with the youngest children hanging on their skirts. In fact, as he had them in focus he tried to remember where he had seen a painting similar to the scene he was recording.
Out of nowhere, though, two German planes appeared, and as soon as the women heard the engines, they flung themselves to the ground, dragging their children facedown in the dirt as well, in an attempt not to be noticed. The planes homed in on the small farmhouse nearly two hundred yards away, and Julian’s lens followed their path over the gently rolling terrain until they disappeared over the horizon, leaving behind them only the space where the farmhouse had been. Smoke and dust billowed outward and then gathered into a single rising stream of smoke snaking into the otherwise warm and pleasant air.
Only later did Julian realize that he must have heard the explosion, must have seen what had happened, because it was all there on film, but in the moment he had existed only as a mechanism without human sensibility, operating the camera. After a wait of perhaps three minutes the women were up and digging once more, and Julian continued filming. But the planes came skimming into view very nearly at ground level and strafed the field, killing two women on the spot, and leaving a woman and child wounded.
The first time he saw that film he wondered how it was that the Germans had not noticed him; clearly he had not understood what was happening, had not had the presence of mind to fall flat himself. As that footage emerged in the darkroom, where he was locked into the inescapable intimacy of being the agent of its existence, he had begun to tremble with shock and was overtaken by a peculiar fury at those women who had arisen too soon, who had died for no reason at all, right before his eyes.
He had six thousand feet of sixteen-millimeter film left from his Scandinavian vacation, and he set about documenting the devastation of Poland as it happened. He was a man of such optimism that he was often rendered foolishly gullible, but Julian had never lacked courage or outrage, and the footage he brought back was inarguably significant. In fact, the film led to—among other things—his being asked by Nelson Rockefeller, head of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, to come up with a proposal for the series of films on which he was now at work.
After a good deal of travel and research, Julian methodically narrowed his search for the small city or town most representative of ordinary life in the United States during what he characterized as the prosperous and serene aftermath of World War II. He wanted an economy that was dependent on both industry and agriculture, and a town that was a pleasant enough place but also one of no particular consequence or extraordinary beauty. He had eventually settled on the state of Ohio, and then winnowed his selection further to the central part of the state, and finally had chosen Washburn, Ohio, as the best place to document and explain the lives of regular Americans to the children of Poland and France, Brazil and Paraguay, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal.
Eventually, in fact, the sound track of Julian Brightman’s film shot in Washburn, Ohio, was translated into forty languages. Generations of schoolchildren from Europe, Latin America, Polynesia, and many other parts of the world—later in their lives, whenever they thought of the United States—were assailed by those examples chosen by Julian Brightman to illustrate the customs of his country. Only seventeen years after those films were made, in fact, when news and images of the Woodstock festival flashed around the world, those now-grown children were hard-pressed to reconcile the muddy hysteria in Upstate New York with Julian Brightman’s sunny, crisply clean Washburn, Ohio. Perhaps the terrible climate and endless rain of New York State had fostered the kind of hopelessness that eventually resulted in drunkenness, drug-taking, and rebellion.
And Julian Brightman, too, in spite of the remarkable footage of Poland he had brought home in 1939, would think of the series of films he made in Washburn, Ohio, as his greatest legacy. The idea that he might have had any part in facilitating greater understanding among nations was more than a little gratifying to him, given his early exposure to missionary zeal.
Dwight and Trudy Claytor and their daughters, Amelia and Martha, shared a handsome, rambling, three-story house with Trudy’s parents, Robert and Lily Butler, halfway around the square from the Eola Arms Hotel, in the section of town still known as Scofields—or, occasionally, as “Snow Fields” by newcomers who misheard the original designation. The Claytor-Butler household together with Agnes Scofield’s house right next door were the last vestiges of Washburn’s original residential area. There was a handsome third house on the property, but it had long ago been ceded to the town by the late George Scofield and was occupied by the Mid-Ohio Civil War Museum, which housed George’s lifetime collection of Civil War memorabilia, as well as an apartment for the curator.
Those three houses and their various outbuildings sat on nearly ten acres, all told, but they fronted on a relatively shallow crescent of lawn across the street from Monument Square. At one time the property had marked the northernmost edge of Washburn, but by 1953 the houses and outbuildings sat stolidly in the very center of town, where there were no longer any families with young children living nearby.
Trudy Claytor planned to help her mother, Lily Butler, give a dinner party at Scofields that Monday evening in October, and after breakfast Trudy decided to give herself a permanent. As soon as her older daughter, Amelia, had gone off to school, Trudy shooed Martha outside, warning her not to cross the street but encouraging her to watch the filming going on in Monument Square.
Martha was a grave little girl, very responsible, and for a while she looked on from her front yard at the activity in the square. After five minutes or so, though, she became increasingly immersed in a project she had idly begun, and the reason she was out in her front yard—where she rarely played—slipped her mind. She became entirely absorbed in creating a whole city, whose highways and byways she was tunneling as best she could into the dry, cracked earth beneath the old trees along the drive, using a short, stout stick she had picked up. She was so engrossed in what she was doing that she forgot all about the filmmaking going on across the street.
Julian Brightman was satisfied with the interior scene he had filmed earlier that morning of Dr. Caldwell ostensibly making a house call on a patient, played by Mrs. Caldwell, who had lain draped with a blanket on the sofa in her living room while her husband checked her pulse and listened through his stethoscope to her heart and lungs. But Julian wanted to exemplify an idea of the busy-ness of the average doctor’s day. He entreated Dr. Caldwell, who was a tall, distinguished-looking man with flaring dark eyebrows and a sweeping crest of white hair, to cross the square again with more of an air of urgency. Mr. Brightman asked the doctor to try to appear to be hurried, if he wouldn’t mind doing the scene once again, and Dr. Caldwell was perfectly amenable, even ad-libbing a nice little piece of business of glancing at his pocket watch as he once more strode briskly through the east gate of the square and along the central path.
It was just then, however, on what, in fact, was an ordinary workday in October of 1953, that Martha Claytor became conscious for the first time in her life of the shrieking blare of what happened to be the Scofield Engine Manufacturing Company’s noon whistle, which through all the company’s various incarnations had bleated one long, loud, breathy note every weekday for over forty years. Undoubtedly Martha had heard it almost every day of her life, but she had failed to incorporate it into the context of the regular pattern of her existence. That Monday noon, when at last the sound permeated her consciousness, she had not one other thought in her head than that it was a siren foretelling the end of the world.
Her sudden perception of the blast of that warning whistle was as startling as if an electric current had temporarily galvanized her. For a moment she didn’t move, and then she looked straight up into the terrifying sky from which the bomb would fall, from which, in fact, she expected to see the sinister and sleekly gray-finned object closing in fast upon her. But the overarching canopy of leaves along the drive was undisturbed by turmoil of any sort—not even ruffled by a light breeze—and Martha was further disoriented and briefly dizzy. The high, streaky clouds rushed eastward far overhead, and Martha sprang up from the ground and stood gazing up into the scudding distance, not even aware that she herself had let loose a long shriek of anguish, a continual wail of horrified aloneness, despair, and resignation, uncommon among children who live in a country that’s not under siege.
Dr. Caldwell broke into a run as he headed toward her to see what had happened, and her mother, Trudy, raced from her bedroom when she heard Martha’s keening, elongated cry. Every ounce of Trudy’s adrenaline propelled her down the stairs and out of the rarely used front door without even considering that her head bristled with pink rubber rollers and white endpapers, that the sulfurous neutralizing lotion of her Toni Home Perm trickled down the back of her neck in milky rivulets, unblotted. She stooped to her daughter’s height and shook her rather fiercely to break through the spell of Martha’s loudly transfixed terror.
“Martha! What is it? Martha! Martha! Hush! For heaven’s sake! Tell me what’s the matter!”
Dr. Caldwell, too, was bending over Martha, inspecting first one hand and then the other, using his handkerchief to wipe them clean. It seemed likely to him that she had cut or hurt her hands while she was playing in the dirt. Julian Brightman simply moved closer and continued filming.
When Martha’s attention was finally caught by the intervention of adults, she instantly went quiet—as abruptly as if she were a record from which someone had lifted the needle. There was the doctor, earnestly inspecting her hands, and at the same time, she recognized her mother’s expression of worried alarm but also her air of embarrassed irritation. Martha’s imagination evaporated; her mind was swept clean of the details of her morning’s work, and she looked without interest at the dusty ground, which a moment earlier had been a real world teeming with life and possibilities. Gone, too, was her terrified expectation of impending obliteration. All around there was concern directed her way, but, if nothing else had convinced her, the slight note of impatience she detected in the voices of the people stooping over her was certainly proof enough that the world was not coming to an end.
“What is it? What? What happened?” her mother continued to ask.
“Were you stung by something?” Dr. Caldwell asked the little girl, since he hadn’t found any sign of injury. “A bee? A wasp? The queens nest in this mossy ground.”
“I heard the siren,” Martha said in a shy mumble.
But Dr. Caldwell and Trudy Butler were so accustomed to the sound that they hadn’t even noticed the noon whistle, and they merely gazed at Martha blankly. Martha didn’t have enough practice—or the presence of mind—to gather the facts retrospectively and explain herself to her mother, much less to the strangers gathered around her. Her expression was unrevealing, although she remained shocked and pale.
Trudy wasn’t comforting. She had been so frightened by the nature of her daughter’s screaming that when Martha finally calmed down and Trudy assured Dr. Caldwell—had assured the filmmaker, as well, after he had asked her to smile, please—that everything was all right, her adrenaline resolved into nausea. She was sickened with relief and embarrassment while she assured the few people who had gathered within hearing distance that her daughter was often carried away by this or that thing she had imagined. “She even has an imaginary playmate. Did Dilly tell you something, Martha?” she asked, turning again to her daughter, who seemed not even to have heard the question.
Trudy continued. “Dilly—her ‘friend’—sometimes Dilly tells Martha horrible stories… oh, really terrible things,” Trudy explained over her shoulder to Julian Brightman, who murmured his understanding, smiled, and nodded, and gently urged Dr. Caldwell back in the direction of the square, while Trudy hurried Martha into the house.
The fact was that after the Second World War, even those children like little Martha Claytor, who had not yet been born before the end of the war, understood that, one way or another, they were very likely doomed. One August morning in 1945 the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay, piloted by Paul Tibbets and named for his mother, dropped a nine-thousand-seven-hundred-pound uranium bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb decimated an area a little over four square miles in less than one minute. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomber, Bock’s Car, took off from the Pacific island of Tinian, carrying a ten-thousand-pound plutonium implosion bomb. Bock’s Car’s primary objective was the ancient Japanese city of Kokura, but it was obscured by heavy ground haze and smoke, and the plane was short of fuel. The pilot, Charles Sweeney, turned to the secondary target, which happened to be the city of Nagasaki.
Over time, whatever deeper, complex consequences that first salvo of the atomic age may have had on the townspeople of Washburn, it was an event that cleaved the relatively fortunate childhoods of its youngest inhabitants into segments: They enjoyed long spells of an assumption of security in the world, broken now and then by bouts of temporarily inconsolable terror.
In fact, in America of the 1950s there was not a single community that didn’t harbor an unacknowledged dread and anticipation of some sort of retribution for having perpetrated an act of aggression previously unmatched by any other country. Simultaneously, however, each one of those communities took a certain civic pride in believing itself to be at least the fourth or fifth target of destruction in order of importance to the Soviet enemy. And, too, those separate American towns and cities were inescapably proud of their country’s rawboned ingenuity, which had finally brought an end to the Second World War.
Certainly there were fewer casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than had been caused elsewhere through the use of conventional warfare, and in the aftermath of those bombings, opinions often differed bitterly—among former friends, within families—on the necessity of such immediate, seemingly effortless, mass destruction. But whatever judgment any individual eventually arrived at, the whole world was stupefied as it came to grips with the fact that the utter decimation of those two targets resulted in no loss at all of American blood and treasure. It was that point, that curiously inglorious sticking point, that stripped the previously naive, abundant, generous-seeming, supposedly good-intentioned young country of its virginity. Twice a bomb was released—first “Little Boy” over Hiroshima and then “Fat Man” over Nagasaki—and the single plane that delivered the bomb—along with its two-plane escort—banked sharply to avoid the concussion, and within forty-five seconds an entire city was turned into a boiling firestorm rising in a turbulence so brilliant it was as bright as the sun. And not a single American life was lost.
It was a scenario difficult even to imagine, although it was impossible not to try to grasp the consequences of such concentrated, lethal power. In the month of August 1945, the United States tied a bright red sash around the waist of her slightly dingy white dress, tucked a red hibiscus behind her ear, and joined ranks with Great Britain and the other old tarts of Europe.
And, of course, in this case, too, as is usual with any successful act of aggression, it was the perpetrator who was most terrified of suffering a similar fate.
Martha Claytor didn’t know anything about the bombing of Japan; she was born two years after the event, but she was imbued with the enormity of the devastation that could be wrought in the world. That particular noonday, she had been helpless against the sudden notion of that horror let loose upon herself, and the dreadful knowledge that she would be pulverized on the spot where she stood, before ever again seeing her mother or her father, her dog, her cats, her sister. She couldn’t think of anything worse than that; nothing else she had yet imagined had ever made her so thoroughly desolate.
Excerpted from Being Polite to Hitler by Dew, Robb Forman Copyright © 2011 by Dew, Robb Forman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Robb Forman Dew was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For the past thirty years she has lived in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, who is professor of history at Williams College. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Dew is the author of the novels Dale Loves Sophie to Death, for which she received the National Book Award; The Time of Her Life; Fortunate Lives; The Evidence Against Her; and, most recently, The Truth of the Matter; as well as a memoir, The Family Heart.
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This is the third in a wonderful series about the Scofields of Washburn, Ohio - those in the clan, and those who marry in, and it was a treat, as were the first two books. It is truly like watching a dramatic series on Masterpiece Theater, one that you hope will never end (from Upstairs, Downstairs to Downton Abbey). The characters are life-like, the family problems and dysfunction are recognizable, the "feelings" expressed (on marriage, careers, parenting, relatives)are right on. It's the best possible fiction, the kind that transports you to another time and place while making you feel that you know the folks that are in its pages. This is the book that you want curl up with, and - finish at one sitting! Kudos to the author and a plea to keep them coming!
Absolutely stunning novel so full of meaning and history that I could bearly read each page without wanting to stop, consider and take it in. This novel is wonderful reading; an uncompromising insight into family dynamics. Ms Dew's sense of plot and timing is seamless. Robb Forman Dew, a National Book Award winner, is an author whose ilk I have rarely experienced since college days in Classic American Literature. In fact, her book ought to be studied in colleges, it's that relevant today for understanding our social and political history, and its roots in post-WWII 1950's. This book stands shoulder to shoulder with those of Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf and Carson McCullers. "Being Polite to Hitler," is a story centered around the Scofield family of "small town" Ohio. Through them, Ms Dew renders a microcosmic view of how everyday people might react to critical transitions and social upheavals such as civil rights, womens' issues, the Rosenbergs, Werhner von Braun, the atomic bomb, the Russians and bomb shelters, just to name a few. The unrelenting exposure to one scenario after another as these people deal with the day-to-day threats and complexities of the 1950's and early 1960's, builds a tension in the reader and brings to mind our lives in contemporary America. Characterization is perfection with female characters such as Agnes, the matriarch, who isn't as staid and boring as her grown children might think. My personal favorite, Lavinia, is the random voice of "women's lib" on the verge, 'though still fraught with "...being better than the Joneses," and the new wealth and commercialism of the decade. All of Robb's characters are to be lauded for their individuality and believability. There is no question that Robb Forman Dew is a gifted writer whose work is rare and an edict for our times. Caught up in our everyday distractions we fail to "see" as the world and its complications spin by us. It is so much easier to be seduced into complacency by media which can lull us into believing, and cause us to be pacified if we blog or tweet, discuss the "situation" with our friends and family...or if we throw some money at it and pat ourselves on the back. Should we actually refuse to "be(ing) polite to Hitler," it would cut through our denial and require personal sacrifices, our actions, and true commitment. We might actually make a difference like Robb Dew and others who take a stand and stake their reputations on it.
"No prob..." *I cock my head* "Now what? I could be thing one you could be thing two?"
Night wing was attaced by a fox in the 8 result!!!! I was injureed too, but its not serious. HELP!!!!!!!
Skyheart, who happened to be passing by, placed her tail on flutterpaws shoulder" Im sorry honey, but toxicpaw loves honeypaw, more than anyone, or anything, including you. I know that for a fact. I think you should move on, and find someone else" she meowed, gently.
She prepares cobwebs and marigold for Larkwing. -Berryleaf
Fine. Ifmy broher dies tell me
"K. Thanks!" She ran to the nursery.