Being Polite to Hitler

Written by Robb Forman Dew
Review by Ellen Keith

Agnes Scofield, a widowed teacher, lives a comfortable, albeit frugal life in Washburn, Ohio in 1953. She reevaluates her life after a health scare and accepts a marriage proposal from a family friend. Her grown children are unhappy, namely because her intended is younger than she is (her daughter used to have a crush on him) and in their minds, she will always be their late father’s wife. Agnes navigates their hurt feelings with aplomb, and she and Sam divide their time between Maine and Ohio.

Being Polite to Hitler quite subtly and wonderfully evokes small town life in the 1950s and the encroaching suburbs. Agnes and her neighbors still live in the historic downtown while her son Claytor and daughter-in-law Lavinia live in a brand new subdivision outside of town, unhappily and beyond their means. Agnes and her friends and family are the focus of the book, but Dew inserts historical interludes such as the space race with the Soviets in the late 1950s and school desegregation in Little Rock. Although placing the novel in the context of the times, these interludes had the effect of taking me away from Agnes’s story, and I felt as though some character development was sacrificed. Agnes and Lavinia are clearly drawn characters but Sam, Claytor, and Agnes’s other children remained ciphers. Still, with just a few paragraphs, Dew put me in the middle of a stultifying dinner party where too much alcohol causes couples to say things they’ll regret.

Should Dew wish to revisit the Scofield clan in another book, I’d happily pick it up to see if it answered my questions—how was Agnes’s brother Dwight raised as her son; what happened to Claytor and Lavinia’s marriage; what was Agnes’s first marriage like? So Dew has piqued my interest even if she hasn’t entirely satisfied it.