by Beth D. Clary
|Robb Foreman Dew’s The Evidence Against Her is a story that ranges over half a century, from the years 1877 to 1927, and explores the intertwined histories of three families, the Scofields, the Butlers and the Claytors. Dew uses historical events, personal events, the seasons, and the temporal experience of high emotional stress to show how time shifts, playing a powerful role in a novel. In the first two chapters, the narrative unfolds chronologically from 1877 to 1917. Then Dew presents four chapters that jump around and shift in time. Finally, the book turns gracefully back to the present and to chronological progression. Dew’s manipulation of time throughout the story enhances the poignancy and power of the novel, revealing different perspectives and angles of the characters and the major events within the story.
At the beginning of the novel, time is introduced as a key element to portray unreliability in characters. Three of the main characters are born on the same day, September 15, 1888. Fathers of two of these newborns (and brothers themselves), Leo and John Scofield, discuss the unlikely event that they would become fathers on the same day. Their conversation turns to Leo’s belief that “all Scofields are born on the ides of the month.” As the eldest Scofield brother, Leo is the authority, the one who chose the location for their houses on the square, the one who, literally, puts down roots, planting trees and shrubs. But John reminds Leo he was born on February 5, upending Leo’s ides proclamation and authority. So before ten pages have passed, time has been used to establish when the story is set, suggest an extraordinary relationship between the three babies born on the same day, and create tension that exists and is sustained throughout the novel between siblings and now parents, Leo and John Scofield.
In her essay, “Time and Order: The Art of Sequencing” (in Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from teachers of the Associated Writing Programs), Lan Samantha Chang refers to the “figure eight” technique of sequencing a story. “Out of sequence” flashbacks allow for “looping time around a central moment,” and “a meandering narrative…with multiple voices with incomplete information.” Rumors and anecdotes within a meandering, flashback-full narrative create the rich central part of the novel, and push the story forward and backward through, personal events and emotions while “never swerving from the narrator’s overall purpose” to give insight to characters and the reasons for their actions.
The small town setting provides opportunities to employ multiple voices from secondary characters, relating the significant events with personal biases and misinformed remembrances via rumors and gossip. One example in the second chapter is the marriage of Lily Scofield and Robert Butler. It is presented a second time, from the point of view of two fifteen year olds, Agnes Claytor and her friend, Lucille, who retell the events of that day in 1913, a day when Lucille was new to town. This method of shifting time and perspective allows the reader to understand important aspects of the main characters’ history but also reveals a lot about the characters in the story’s present.
Nature is a temporal tool Dew uses in many ways. Trees are planted in the first chapter and reappear in later chapters, tall and mature, in chapters eight, ten, eleven and twelve, representing the passage of time. In Chapter eleven an unexpected out-of-season “freak snowstorm” allows Dew to characterize Lily and Agnes. Lily, pregnant and miserable, at first sees the beauty in the “snow on the honeysuckle and the trumpet vine…as if someone had strung Christmas decorations in her father’s garden.” But when she sees Agnes, also pregnant, and her two young boys playing in the snow, Lily feels “a plummeting sense of despondency and envy.” Furthermore, Dew uses Agnes’s mother, Catherine, to show how weather and the seasons can be used to move the story forward. Catherine’s references to the weather and nature in her storytelling about her youth in Natchez, with the oppressive heat, and her current life in Washburn, Ohio, move from the past to the present and reveal qualities of her, and others’ character. In one such story, Catherine gives her daughter, Agnes, a photograph of herself “when she was about Agnes’s age” and declares, “Have you ever seen a more beautiful girl?” This marks time and nature’s toll on Catherine and reveals Agnes’s rising star as a beauty in her own right.
Dew uses personal events such as birthdays, weddings, holidays, graduations and deaths to help the reader understand the ages of characters and their behavior. A flashback to Agnes’s visits to Natchez captures her grandmother’s death. Then this becomes tied to Catherine’s approaching birthday, an occasion that reveals how delicate Catherine’s sanity is and how much Agnes is forced to be the responsible member of the family.
Personal dates are tied to historical events as well, particularly the flu epidemic of 1918, which forces all the characters into action. Dwight Claytor objects to the fear associated with isolating school children. Pregnant with her first child, Agnes resents being sent home, out of town, to avoid contact with any infected people. Ultimately, the flu takes the lives of both Catherine Claytor and her son, Edson. This event leads to Agnes raising her youngest brother as her own and removes the original source of chaos in Agnes’s life, her mother.
Chaotic events are a fascinating time element in the novel. In Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction, she explores the power of slow motion in novels. She writes, “moments of great intensity cause the senses to be especially alert—register more than usual…. In extreme crises people have the odd sensation that time slows down and the senses are clearer.” Dew shows this effectively at various points of crisis in the novel and it advances the sense that Agnes longs for a life with as much routine and predictability as possible. Catherine’s birthday breakdown takes a full eleven pages to unfold and resolve itself. All of chapter seven is a long lingering afternoon and following morning filled with false hopes and realigning alliances, culminating with Dwight Claytor attempting to enforce his views with violence. The slow unwinding of Agnes’s hopes in chapter eight is excruciatingly but effectively drawn out. The pie story from Lily and Robert’s wedding trip told early in the novel reappears to accentuate what an outsider Agnes is, and will always be, to the close group of Lily, Robert, Warren, cousins all born on the same day.
The end of the book is filled with crisis upon crisis—young Dwight’s delivery, Edson’s death, Catherine’s death, Claytor’s birth and John Scofield’s death—each filled with slow pacing and specific details. The moment of John’s death, which occurs in literally one or two moments as he loses his balance and falls, takes three pages. Dew writes Agnes in a disoriented state, watching Lily “kneeling over her uncle for a long moment.” Agnes “never even made the connection between this awful event and the several years that followed when she was more content than she had ever imagined in her whole life that she would be.”
In ways both common and uncommon, Robb Foreman Dew uses time to reveal depth of character and advance her sophisticated and compelling story. She does this, as Janet Burroway urges, with a balance of summary, scene, fully realized moments, memories, flashbacks, reflections, and slow motion crisis moments to “allow your reader to experience the story with the characters.” Chang adds to the notion of time’s importance to a well-crafted novel when she writes, “Time is a fiction writer’s medium, and she must learn to move her story through time in a way that will illuminate characters, the passing of entire lives as well as moments of stillness.”
Beth D. Clary is a student in Fairfield University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, anticipating graduation in January 2013. She works as a freelance writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, working for magazines, websites and nonprofits. Her goal is to get her novel and a collection of short fiction out into the world.