Agnes Scofield is approaching old age in America midway through the 20th century. Should she change or remain the same? Her husband is dead, and though her teaching job at a local school is consistent and familiar, it is not as stimulating as it once was. She is a source of stability in her young students’ lives, but that stability is proving tiresome. Perhaps her friend Sam could rescue her from her boredom. After all, he has proposed marriage. Perhaps Agnes could have a new house in Maine—a modest renaissance in her old age. She might even get a dog and undertake a new building project. Or is it too late to start over?

Meanwhile, America is also having growing pains. The country has lost an important phase of the Space Race to the Soviet Union; Sputnik is now on the prowl. Racially segregated schools are no longer acceptable, women are beginning to insist on equal rights, a young Catholic is narrowing in on the presidency and “polio” remains a well-known and frightening word. What is to become of the still-youthful United States?

Being Polite to Hitler is effortless and memorable. Robb Forman Dew, a past winner of the National Book Award, writes beautifully about a wide range of changes—the things that happen in an aging woman’s heart, the jolts and shocks that greeted America throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Best of all, Dew shows us many surprising connections between the mundane and the cosmic—the way the Space Race altered American families’ purchasing habits, the way a small argument can turn into a life-changing crisis. Dew tells stories with ease and confidence; within the first few pages, you know you are in good hands.

Fans of Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout and William Maxwell won’t want to miss this quiet and graceful novel. It is to be hoped that Dew will continue the story of Agnes Scofield’s life in another volume—and soon!


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