February 2009

Kylee Stoor

fiction

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is one clever writer. She has written an astute political commentary in the guise of a sweet late-bloomer coming-of-age tale. It will surely trick many a book club member into becoming a little bit more informed about the status of the Middle East in the early twentieth century.

Dreamers of the Day is the story of Agnes Shanklin, a well-mannered, self-professed "homely" woman who emerges from the American influenza epidemic of 1918 a lonely heiress. With nothing but her newfound wealth, her dachshund Rosie, and lots of relatives’ belongings to sort through, she decides to take a trip to Egypt, where her late beloved sister Lillian and her husband and sons had spent time as missionaries. Agnes hopes to find the faith that moved Lillian to tears as she retraced the steps of Jesus on her honeymoon, but instead, she finds herself a willing participator in a web of political gossip. When she happens to meet T.E. “Neddy” Lawrence, the "uncrowned king of Arabia," at her hotel, they hit it off immediately. Lillian was Lawrence’s hostess while he wrote his thesis in Jebail, and his fond memories of her lead him to take Agnes under his wing for the duration of her time in Egypt. With Agnes at his side, Lawrence enters into informal negotiations with Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, among other historical figures. When not hobnobbing with powerful politicians, Agnes befriends Karl Weilbacher, a Jewish German intelligence officer who is very interested in her new friendship with Lawrence, as well as in Agnes herself.

The events that take place in the novel are admittedly rather ridiculous, but I simply didn’t care. Agnes is such a likeable character that I wanted her to have these thrilling new experiences, even if they were hard to believe. Her innocence is deceptive, though. Using Agnes as an entrance into a backstage view of the events surrounding the 1921 Cairo Conference and as an observer of the personal lives of well known political figures is a brilliant way to explore these proceedings while retaining a strong sense of narrative and developing the characters realistically and humanely. Agnes’s naïveté about the Middle East provides a strong motivation for explanations of the political and cultural atmosphere through the different perspectives of Lawrence and Churchill as they share their experiences with Agnes, who catches on quickly to their political agendas and responds with wit and sincerity.

Though an excursion to paint the pyramids in oils with Churchill is hardly a realistic scenario, the lively look at the man through his interactions with Agnes and the native Egyptians he encounters provides a fascinating imagining of the man himself, one that Russell may seem audacious in writing, but in which her risks pay off. At the same time, viewing Egypt through Agnes’s eyes is second only to seeing it oneself; her descriptions of everything from the pyramids and the heat to her disappointment at the anti-climactically modest Jerusalem rival any travelogue. While Dreamers of the Day isn’t in quite the same league as Russell’s brilliant novel, The Sparrow, it’s an elegant, engrossing story that touches on relevant issues without being preachy, which is certainly enough of an accomplishment to make this novel well worth reading.  

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books
ISBN- 978-0-345-48555-7
288 pages