This novel is the second in Dew’s trilogy; after the success of the first, The Evidence Against Her, Dew settles once again on the Scofields of Washburn, Ohio. When Warren Scofield dies in an automobile accident in 1930, Agnes is left to raise her four children: Dex, Claytor, Betts and Howard.
Without Warren, the family is in constant financial difficulty, but Agnes manages to raise her children on a limited income, taking advantage of scholarships and a thrifty lifestyle. She never remarries, and all the siblings eventually leave the nest, the two oldest married with families of their own. Of the youngest, Howard joins the service to fight in World War II, and Betts goes away to college, returning only for occasional visits.
By 1947, when the grown children have begun to return home, Agnes has attained a satisfying life as a school teacher, with a dog and a part-time lover, Will Dameron. Suddenly Agnes’ quiet life is thrown into familiar chaos, the family expanded by spouses, children and assorted friends, her well-deserved quietude turned inside out as she is reassigned the role of unobserved caretaker.
The Truth of the Matter takes place in an era of conventional morality, when family scandals were kept secret and neighborhood gossip was built on nothing more than speculation. Caught in a world of details, past and present, Agnes’ days are circumscribed by marriage, family and society’s expectations. Although the war has altered everyday reality, the Scofields cling to their clan, centering on day-to-day activities that meld with familial events, forming a united front whose fissures are invisible to outsiders.
Dew writes with nostalgia, as if through a series of daguerreotypes, of a mother’s life entirely in service to her family. Agnes’ independence has been long ago erased by the needs of others, the matriarch nurturing remnants of that time. Long-buried family secrets are revealed, Agnes herself complicit in events that go far beyond peculiarity. Throughout, she remains a passive observer, unruffled by circumstances.
Dew romanticizes the war years and the Scofields family values, especially an affinity for one another, yet I found these characters uninspiring. The family in general and Agnes in particular are mediocre and passionless, following society’s script without exception, indulging in memories to relieve the boredom of their days. Dew does capture the social isolation of a widowed schoolteacher and her adult children but skims the surface of these lives without exploring the more complex issues beneath the family façade.
Agnes does discover her “essential self.” but by then she is fairly exhausted by the energy it takes to survive. In a successful trilogy, the second novel must sustain the interest of the first and move the story along to last installment. This novel may be a bridge to past characters as well as a view to the next generation, but whether this title stands alone on its merits is a matter for the reader to decide, as the Scofields move on to the next phase of their lives.