William Faulkner did it. Thomas Hardy did it. Robb Forman Dew does it. Each of these authors invented imaginary geographical places and made them seem so real that literary tourists are often disappointed to find them not listed on the map. Robb Forman Dew accomplishes this feat with an imaginary town in Ohio.

The characters in Dew's new novel, The Evidence Against Her, live in the invented town of Washburn, Ohio. The year is 1888, and so little happens in this sleepy hamlet that the birth of three children on a sunny day in September passes for big news.

Within a 12-hour span, the children are born into an enclave of friends and family on the prosperous side of the tracks in Washburn. The family of Leo Schofield gains their first child, a daughter; Leo's brother John Schofield acquires a son, and their friend Daniel Butler, pastor of the Methodist church, also becomes the father of a son. These three children Lily Schofield, Warren Schofield and Robert Butler come into the world together through the accident of their mothers' almost simultaneous labor pains, but the ties they forge are of their own making. Their alliance lasts a lifetime and grows richer and more complicated with the passage of the years.

In this story of an extended family and its town, nothing is as simple as the bucolic setting implies. Lily Schofield and Robert Butler marry, to no one's surprise. The fact that Lily happens to be in love with her first cousin Warren Schofield is a pain she hides as best she can. When Warren falls in love with Agnes Claytor, a younger woman and outsider to the clan, the lives of the triumvirate of Lily, Robert and Warren undergo changes that none of them could have anticipated.

In this beautiful, moving novel, the life of a small town at the turn of the century is transformed through the wonder of the author's sure grasp of her characters. Each character, each relationship is developed with such grace and intimacy that the Schofields, the Claytors and the Butlers come to seem like old friends. The relationship between Agnes Claytor and her mother, Catherine, an unwillingly transplanted Southern belle, is as memorable a portrait of the struggle between generations and cultures as any found in modern fiction.

The Evidence Against Her is an intricately constructed novel, as deceptively effortless as a stroll through Washburn's Memorial Square on an early summer afternoon. Author Robb Forman Dew is the granddaughter of poet John Crowe Ransom and the goddaughter of novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren, and she does credit to her literary heritage. Like Eudora Welty, Caroline Gordon and Edith Wharton, Dew's stories evolve magically out of place and time in response to her uncanny talent for fleshing out the abstract patterns of existence to the point where poetry and life converge.

Mary Garrett reads and writes in Middle Tennessee.

 

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