Being Polite to Hitler/Robb Forman Dew: Reflections

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's been a decade or so since Elizabeth Taylor of the Chicago Tribune invited me to review Robb Forman Dew's novel, The Evidence Against Her.  I didn't know Robb at the time, but I quickly grew enamored of her gifts, her craftsmanship.  I didn't, in fact, expect that I ever would know Robb, nor imagined that she'd find the words I'd ultimately write about her novel.  I was wrong, of course.  Robb found my words.  She wrote me a letter.  And soon Robb and I were friends.

In the intervening years, Robb sent books, she sent a tapestry she'd found in an old barn, she sent notes, she sent encouragement, she sent praise of a novel on which I worked.  She sent us—her large coterie of writerly friends—something we might do in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the name and address of a school to which we all might send boxes of brand new, hand-picked books.  Robb proved to be one enormously generous soul, and then things got quiet as she settled into work again, and I waited for what would come next, and next.

I just now finished reading Robb's masterful new novel—its title as clever as the rest of it.  Being Polite to Hitler carries forward, from The Evidence Against Her, a certain Agnes Scofield and her close-knit, famous-in-Washburn, Ohio kin.  It takes us to October of 1953 on through to the early 1960s on the wings of some of the most gracious writing you'll ever find and some of the most seamless historicism I've ever seen in a novel.  No doubt Robb  did her homework for this story—sourcing the telling details of Yankees games and Sputnik, home perm kits and development housing, polio and fashion.  But more importantly, none of it feels heavy or dug in.  It's just life as Agnes Scofield knows it, and what's most important, always, is Agnes and her kin.

I could conceivably quote from every line in this book; I've dogearred the whole, darned, gorgeously packaged volume.  Let me quote, selfishly, from something that struck me as quintessentially Robb—her ability to unpolish a good woman just a bit, so that we can see ourselves (or perhaps our someday selves) within her.  From somewhat late in the book:
People liked or loved you or they didn't, according to their own needs.  Not a single night of the months in Maine had she lain awake agonizing over the possibility that she might accidentally have slighted someone, or that she might have exhibited favoritism to some member of the family as opposed to another.  She knew perfectly well that she was capable of—and had indulged in—a certain spitefulness now and then, and generally she had apologized.  If she happened to slight someone by accident or through ignorance, or just through a failure to rein in her tendency toward bossiness...  Well, she no longer tormented herself about it.  Her newly hardened indifference was unexpected; it was a state of being that she hadn't known existed.
After finishing Being Polite to Hitler, I went back and read my review of The Evidence Against Her.  That review begins like this—words that strike me as still utterly relevant and true.  Read Robb Forman Dew.

Perhaps the only thing more bewildering than gauging one’s own mind is imagining the minds of others—the residues and imprints that spark and shadow foreign thoughts.  Of all that has happened in a life, what gets remembered, what signifies?  Of all the improbable influences, what finally persuades?
            Those of us who struggle to answer such questions for ourselves have little choice but to admire a writer of the caliber of Robb Forman Dew, who has demonstrated, in both her fiction and her nonfiction, a near savantism when it comes to mapping psychological terrain.  Dew’s characters are fiercely imagined, fiercely alive on the page—complicated, contradicting, equally prone to shame and to sweet triumphs.  No detail is too small for Dew to dwell on or to share.  Nothing escapes her formidable and wholly empathetic imagination.


bermudaonion said...

Your lovely words have made me anxious to read this book.

Amy said...

It sounds wonderful!

Lilian Nattel said...

What a great review. I'm adding her to the list.

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