Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Being Polite to Hitler by Robb Forman Dew

Normally I don't like to read books in a series out of order but I didn't know that Being Polite to Hitler was the final book in a trilogy. Thankfully that turned out not to matter and I am even rather pleased to know that I can revisit these characters when I so choose, even if I do already know their ultimate outcomes (and I suspect that I have the first two books somewhere deep on the tbr mountains already so it will be easy enough for me to do). Putting aside the trilogy order issue though, how could I possibly pass up a book so enticingly titled especially coupled with the cover image of a woman daintily sipping tea? It was just too appealing.

Taking place in the years following World War II, from the early 50's to the early 70's, the novel follows the Scofield clan through their everyday lives in small town Washburn, Ohio. Matriarch Agnes Scofield starts the novel coming to the conclusion that she is tired of teaching. It was only ever something she did out of obligation and now she wishes to be able to leave off. Whether she will have the courage and ability to change her life in the face of the mundane remains to be seen. The novel also follows Agnes' family in their daily struggles, financial, marital, and personal as well.

Althought it might seem as if there's not much going on in this quietly domestic novel, there is nothing going on in the way that there was nothing happening in Virginia Woolf's novels. There is a sense of the ordinary extraordinariness of daily life in a small town during the post war years. And like Woolf's, many of Dew's characters face that elegantly quiet desperation in which only the comfortable upper middle class can indulge. The characters peopling the pages of the novel are langorous and yet tightly wound too, a neat, tricky bit of writing that Dew pulls off admirably.

The hopscotching narrative functions as a window to peek in on various different Scofields and the state of the world as America comes of age after the war. Dew weaves historically significant events throughout the story. Some are intact and lengthy (Kenndy's assassination) while others are merely alluded to or briefly discussed by the characters (the Rosenbergs), their prominence in the storyline mirroring the importance of each event commensurate with their impact on the middle America of the time. This is a book filled with moments, everday moments, extraordinary moments, and even authorial moments. At one point, with a wink to her readers, Dew gives herself a tongue in cheek tip of the hat in the midst of an exposition.

Beautifully crafted, this is a quietly resonant novel. When Agnes' daughter-in-law Lavinia crossly accuses her husband Claytor of being willing to endure anything, willing to sit being polite to Hitler so as not to ruffle any feathers, the perfection of the title as a descriptor for the characters' lives is highlighted. And for those people who often find themselves bemoaning tepid endings, this book has one of the very best ending lines I have read, perfectly in keeping with the entire tone of everything that went on before. Lovers of literary fiction will find much to savor here and Woolf fans will rejoice in the understated homage to To the Lighthouse.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. This sounds like an interesting novel -- it's good to know that even though it is the final book of a trilogy its story is able to stand up on its own.

  2. Obscure literary trivia: Robb Forman Dew is the granddaughter of John Crowe Ransom, the poet.


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