After World War II, history seemed to speed up. How much could get crammed into the following 30 years? Well, only everything from Sputnik and JFK to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the turmoil of the late '60s and the fear-mongering of the Cold War. When protagonist Agnes Scofield hits 54 and starts pulling apart her identity, reconfiguring it in some meaningful way, the significant events of the postwar era help her mark off some of the significant events in the life of her average American family.
Robb Forman Dew likes families. She loves writing about them, taking them apart and analyzing their very structure. In Agnes's large family --- which consists of five kids, various paramours, neighbors and lifelong friends, as well as a variety of animals, including her trusted dog --- nothing is simple. Just as America finds its leaves variegated, so does the Scofield clan, several generations of them.
There are so many characters living in this book that I could barely get the covers to close when I finished reading. Along the way, during which Agnes remarries and sets the family on a new trajectory with this ignited decision, they all begin to find their voices, coupling and uncoupling and coupling back more times than a "Real Housewives" episode. Agnes's children create the mainframe for the action, but it's really the falling apart and coming together of the world at large that helps to inform the family's dramas and give them shape and focus.
The town in Ohio where they live, Washburn, seems to be an ode to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, where the biting and quietly emotional vignettes told us more in a few sentences than epic novels could have --- where the major course of American history comes to sandwich the good and bad of the normal, everyday lives of its inhabitants.
Dew writes with an understated style. She never dazzles you with her language, and yet, as the book deepens, bringing the worlds of the Scofields closer together with the activities of the US, it is this very simplicity that helps you find the positively powerful truths that are being acted out by the characters. BEING POLITE TO HITLER is a real piece of Americana, glancing over our contemporary shoulder to the generation just behind us that helped define the zeitgeist of these days we live in.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 4, 2011
Being Polite to Hitler