With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines.
Agnes Shanklin, a forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio, has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference convenes, she is freed for the first time from her mother’s withering influence and finds herself being wooed by a handsome, mysterious German. At the same time, Agnes–with her plainspoken American opinions–is drawn into the company of Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell, who will, in the space of a few days, redraw the world map to create the modern Middle East. As they change history, Agnes too will find her own life transformed forever.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.52(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.01(d)|
About the Author
Mary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow, Children of God, and A Thread of Grace. Her novels have won nine national and international literary awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the American Library Association Readers Choice Award. The Sparrow was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s ten best books of the year, and A Thread of Grace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Contact her at www.MaryDoriaRussell.info.
Date of Birth:August 19, 1950
Place of Birth:Elmhurst, Illinois
Education:B.A., The University of Illinois; M.A., Northeastern University; Ph.D., The University of Michigan
Read an Excerpt
Dreamers of the Day
By Mary Doria Russell
Copyright © 2008 Mary Doria Russell
All right reserved.
I suppose i ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: my little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.
You must try to feel the hope and amazement of those years. Anything seemed possible—the end of ignorance, the end of disease, the end of poverty. Physics and chemistry, medicine and engineering were breaking through old boundaries. In the cities, skyscrapers shredded clouds. Trucks and automobiles were crowding out horse-drawn cabs and drays in the boulevards below. The pavement was clean: no stinking piles of dung, no buzz of flies.
In 1913, America had a professor-president in the White House—a man of intelligence and principle, elected to clean up the corruption that had flourished in the muck of politics for so long. Public health and public schools were beating back the darkness in slums and settlements. The poor were lifted up and the proud brought down as Progressives reined in the power of Big Money.
In the homes of the middle class, our lives ticked along like clocks, well regulated and precise. We had electric lights, electrictoasters, electric fans. On Sundays, there were newspaper advertisements for vacuum cleaners, wringer-washers, radios, and automobiles. Our bathrooms were clean, modern, and indoors. We believed that good nutrition and good moral hygiene would make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. We had every reason to think that tomorrow would be better than today. And the day after that? Better yet!
The Great War and the Great Influenza fell on our placid world almost without warning.
Imagine: around the world, millions and millions and millions vital and alive one day, slack-jawed dead the next. Imagine people dying in such numbers that they had to be buried in mass graves dug with steam shovels—dying not of some ancient plague or in some faraway land, but dying here and now, right in front of you. Imagine knowing that nothing could ensure your survival. Imagine that you know this not in theory, not from reading about it in books, but from how it feels to lift your own foot high and step wide over a corpse.
What would you do?
I’ll tell you what a lot of us did. We boozed and screwed like there was no tomorrow. We shed encumbrances and avoided entanglements.We were tough cookies, slim customers, swell guys, real dolls. We made our own fun and our own gin, drinking lakes of the stuff, drinking until we could Charleston on the graves. Life is for the living! Pooh, pooh, skiddoo! Drink up—the night is young!
“I don’t want children,” said one celebrated writer after an abortion. “We’d have nothing in common. Children don’t drink.”
Does such callousness shock you? But I suppose it does. You see, by that time the plain stale fact of mortality had become so commonplace, so tedious . . . Well, mourning simply went out of style.
And just between you and me? Even if you find yourself among illustrious souls, you can get awfully tired of the dead.
Let me count my own. Lillian and Douglas, and their two dear boys. Uncle John. And Mumma, of course. Six. No, wait! Seven. My brother, Ernest, was the first.
I last saw Ernest in September of 1918. Slim in khaki, a mustachioed captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, my brother waved from the window of a train packed three boys to every double seat. They were headed for Newport News, where the battalion would ship out for Europe.
By the time Ernest left for the coast, five million European soldiers had already disappeared into “the sausage machine.” That’s what their commanders called the Great War. To understand why, you must call to mind some modern war. Think of the casualties endured in a year’s time, or five years, or ten. Now imagine sixty thousand men killed in a single day of combat: meat fed to the guns. Imagine four years like that.
America stared, aghast and uncomprehending, while the Old World gorged on its young and smashed its civilization to pieces for reasons no one was able to explain. From the start, there was some war sentiment in America, but it was largely confined to those who knew there was money to be made selling weapons, uniforms, steel, and ships, should America join the fight.
Reelected, barely, on a peace platform, our professor-president remained steadfast even when he was called a coward for refusing to involve us in the madness of foreigners. Then, eight weeks after Woodrow Wilson’s second inaugural, a document was “captured” and made public. In it, the German foreign minister urged the Mexican government to join Germany in a war against the United States and, in so doing, to reclaim the lost lands of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.
Call me cynical. I always thought that document was a fraud. And even if it was genuine, why send our boys to France if the threat was on our southern border?
Of course, I was just a schoolteacher—a woman without a vote of my own, or even a husband to persuade. The men all said that document changed everything. Certainly Mr. Wilson believed it did. When he turned the ship of state toward Europe, the nation cheered and felt gratified to have exciting newspaper stories to talk about at breakfast. Those of us who saw no need for war found the enthusiasm of our fellow citizens bewildering. I read all the papers, frantic to understand why this was happening to my country and the world. To me, Mr. Wilson’s conversion was so shocking, it seemed Saint Paul had renounced Christ to become Saul once more. But there you are: even if the reason for going to war was a shameless hoax, the war itself was real and, by God, America was in it!
In fact, Mr. Wilson informed the nation, the Almighty Himself no longer wanted America to stand aloof from the slaughter in the Old World. “America,” the president declared, “was born to exemplify devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”
By turning the other cheek? I wondered. Silly woman . . .
No, exemplifying righteousness required America to fight a war to end all wars, a war so brutal and ruthless that war would never be waged again. Mr. Wilson assured us that this crusade was God’s will and God’s work.
If Abraham Lincoln had erred in allowing the press to criticize the government during our Civil War, Woodrow Wilson vowed, “I won’t repeat his mistakes.” The president didn’t repeal the First Amendment; he had, after all, recently sworn to uphold the Constitution. The press could print what it liked, of course, but the post office didn’t have to deliver it. The Wilson administration ordered the confiscation of anything unpatriotic, which is to say anything critical of his administration. Total war demanded totalitarian power, Mr. Wilson told a compliant Congress. “There are citizens of the United States,” the president thundered, “who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed.”
Anyone who protested, or even voiced reluctance, was called a traitor. Mr. Eugene Debs was sentenced to decades in prison. His crime? He said that a war abroad did not excuse tyranny at home.
Mexico was all but forgotten in the excitement.
That’s why, by the summer of 1918, a million American men had been mobilized to fight—from career officers like my brother, Ernest, to draftees straight off the farm. Ernest’s train left Cleveland carrying nearly 250 soldiers, including a boy from Wooster who seemed to have a dreadful cold. When the troops arrived on the Virginia coast two days later, more than 120 of the soldiers already had the flu. Sixty others were ill within a day or two.
In Ernest’s last letter home, he confessed that he was afraid he’d miss the war. He was so eager to embark! I doubt he mentioned his headache to anyone else. The next letter we received was from a friend of his. Ernest had been buried at sea before the boat was halfway to France. Later we learned that most of his battalion had sickened. Many died while standing on a French dock, awaiting orders in a chilly autumn rain.
In October, the military finally canceled leave and liberty, but it was too late to make a difference. Railways had distributed the influenza with the same swift efficiency that carried coal, wheat, and livestock to and from every corner of the continent. Within weeks, the flu was everywhere.
People spread the disease before they knew they had it, got sicker, brought it home, and died. Fiancées, parents, brothers, and sisters: kissed good-bye at train stations. Ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers, doctors, nurses: working until they died on their feet. Trolley conductors, shopkeepers. Teachers.
Waves of influenza broke across the nation and all the while, the war ground on in Europe. Cleveland sent forty-one thousand boys “over there.” One of my students came to see me before he left—a boy named for the great Italian patriot Garibaldi. Gary, we called him at school. He was a good student. Arithmetic was his best subject, as I recall. Off he went with the Fifth Regiment of the Ohio National Guard, to revenge bleeding Belgium and rescue poor brave France, to make the world safe for democracy and kill Huns for Mr. Wilson.
Gary visited me again after he got home, in 1919. “You were wrong, Miss Shanklin. The Grim Reaper isn’t a metaphor,” he told me. “The Reaper’s real. I saw him. We went over the top and machine guns mowed us down, like a scythe through weeds. Row after row of us. You can’t imagine, miss.”
No, not that, but I had seen men struck down in the streets of Cleveland. They’d leave for the office in the morning feeling fine. During the day, they’d complain of being hot and achy. By evening, waiting on the corner for a streetcar, they’d fall to the pavement, already dead or near to it. Gary soon became one of them. Poor boy. He had just married his sweetheart and found a job as a bank teller. He left work feeling woozy and never made it home for supper.
Even then, before the worst of it, I wanted to escape from the sadness. I was older than the lost generation of the Roaring Twenties. I began the decade too shy to dance, too homely to imagine myself of interest even to a maimed veteran, too timid to break the Prohibition laws and risk blindness drinking bathtub gin. But in the end? I was not so very different. I, too, yearned for new sights, new sounds, new people—and, yes: a new me. I wanted to believe again in peace, and progress, and prosperity.
Prosperity, at least, I would have and this one certainty: of all my natal family, I would be the last to die. My brief obituary would be written by a bored young newspaperman in 1957: “Agnes Shanklin, heiress, dead at 76, after a long illness.”
That’s what they called cancer then. “A long illness.” And don’t be fooled by that fancy word “heiress.” No single estate was all that much, but taken together and added to $1,000 of soldier’s insurance from Ernest, they totaled just enough to afford me a careful independence.
Frugality I had learned at my mother’s knee. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do.” That was Mumma’s motto, especially after the bankruptcy and Papa’s death.
In the beginning, I believe, my parents anticipated something close to the ideal marriage of the nineteenth century. They met and married late, both nearly thirty and too mature for silly romantic illusions about love. When they pledged their troth in the sight of God, they did so in the hope that theirs would be a union of souls. They understood that this would demand an equal sacrifice of personal interests. Papa would lose his place in the home; Mumma, her place in the world. He would strive for material sustenance and guard the family from the corruption of the marketplace. In return for cooking and needlework, the bearing and raising of children, she would receive shelter, food, and a clothing allowance.
Such marriages always ran the risk of becoming cold but practical business partnerships. In the case of my parents, mutual admiration rested upon an economic arrangement that seemed to suit them both. Mumma was a fine seamstress, Papa a mechanical engineer. You might not think they’d have had much in common, apart from their children, but together they reasoned out a design for a sewing machine foot that would make cording easy and automatic. In the tenth year of their marriage, walking home from church one Sunday, they hatched a plan. They would take all their savings and start a factory right in Cedar Glen, just east of Cleveland. The business could provide good, honest work for the sons of slaves who’d come north on the Underground Railway. Those men would demonstrate that Negroes were capable of skilled labor, and the business would benefit by undercutting the competition on wages.
Papa’s probity and Mumma’s piety were well known in Cedar Glen. Their good character convinced several members of their congregation that they could do well by doing good, and they agreed to invest in the venture. Papa took the idea to a banker, who steered him toward a partner said to be a person of energy and vision.
To our family’s misfortune, Papa was an honest man in a time when business was increasingly often conducted between strangers who recognized no good or god excepting only Profit. In Washington and Columbus, politicians wearing masks of unctuous respectability legislated mightily to outlaw private sin and enforce private virtue, all the while accepting money to overlook the public crimes of industrialists and financiers who made incalculable fortunes by exploiting workers and swindling investors. In that climate, Papa’s trustworthiness was the very hallmark of a “patsy.” He built the factory; his partner and the banker disappeared with the money.
For Papa, it was a matter of honor that he keep his employees working and make his creditors whole. That determination left hardly any time or money for his family. Mumma soon found it difficult to hide our circumstances from public view, but Papa steadfastly refused help from her brother, a bachelor attorney with money to spare.
“Foolish pride,” Mumma called that. “How am I to run a proper household with what you bring home?”
“Others are worse off,” Papa said, time and again. “We shall manage without charity.”
“Easy for you to say,” Mumma would mutter, and the household would go very quiet, unspoken accusations loud in our minds.
Excerpted from Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell Copyright © 2008 by Mary Doria Russell. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
1. At age thirty-eight, Agnes Shanklin "believed that all the big questions of [her] life had been answered." If her family had not died during the influenza, do you think she would have gone on to the dismal future she imagined for herself? Are the opinions and expectations of others strong enough to determine a life?
2. Agnes begins to break the mold when she buys new clothes and gets her hair bobbed. Makeover shows are popular on television today, and people often say that "this has changed my life." Do you believe them? Are appearances really that powerful?
3. Clothing is mentioned a great deal in the novel. In what ways are the characters in Dreamers of the Day defined and/or influenced by their clothes? How do Agnes, Mumma, Gertrude Bell, and T. E. Lawrence use their fashion choices as indicators of their attitudes? Is your clothing a tool or a disguise or just something to cover your nakedness?
4. What does Rosie embody for Agnes? Is her attachment to her little dog "pathetic," as she suggests? How does Rosie’s existence color the novel and influence its chain of events?
5. Unlike Mumma and her devout sister, Lillie, Agnes struggles with her faith. Why are some people so at home in the religion they were born to, while others chafe at it? Does her trip to the Holy Land change Agnes’s philosophical framework, or is she left without a moral compass? Where is Agnes at the end of the novel? Is she a "soul who cannot find her way"?
6. Russell paints a vivid picture of America in the Roaring Twenties, and identifies a strong correlation between identity and consumption (with Freud and postwar advertising to thank). How has advertising changed since the 1920s? Do you recognize modern America in the descriptions?
7. Karl expounds on how it is "remarkable what people choose to do and then insist they had no choice." What does it mean when someone says, "You leave me no choice" or "I had no choice"? What does it mean when nations make this claim?
8. T. E. Lawrence, Karl Weilbacher, Gertrude Bell, Lord Cox, and Winston Churchill all have theories on imperial rule and how to best resolve the growing conßicts in the Middle East. What are their ideas and how do they hold up to hindsight and a modern historical perspective?
9. Agnes alludes to Shakespeare’s observation "conscience makes cowards of us all." Who is Agnes hearing when she listens to the voices of Mildred and Mumma (and Mark Twain)? What influences her life-changing decision to travel to Egypt? What resolution, if any, does Agnes reach through their competing voices?
10. Karl believes "to be enjoyed, life must be shared." This assessment is in sharp contrast to the independent and decidedly single Agnes, Gertrude Bell, and T. E. Lawrence. Bell dismissively maintains that "happy and contented people don’t make history." Who among them do you think is truly fulfilled?
11. Do you agree with Karl’s assessment that "[foreigners] cannot tolerate to feel ignorant long enough to understand [the Middle East]"? T. E. Lawrence advises Agnes upon her arrival in Cairo: "If you think you understand Middle Eastern politics, they haven’t been explained to you properly." After reading Dreamers of the Day, what about the Cairo Conference and the Middle East, if anything, has become clearer? More confusing?
12. When Osama bin Laden took "credit" for the events of 9/11, he said that the attacks in 2001 were, in part, revenge for "the catastrophe of eighty years ago." What "catastrophe" was he referring to? Why is it remembered in the Middle East, but forgotten in the West?
13. What advice could the British aristocracy take away from their camel ride through the desert?
14. Examine the characterization of the women in Dreamers of the Day: Agnes, Mumma, Lillie, Gertrude, and Clementine. What similarities do you find? What are their striking differences? Generations later, do these women seem alien to you or familiar?
15. Agnes thinks that "every event is a reenactment" and that "observing human history has turned out to be a terrible exercise in monotony." Do you agree? Will we ever achieve Agnes’s dream of Òpeace, progress, and prosperity?"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Having begun her fiction career with two novels of science fiction, Mary Doria Russell now offers her second volume of historical fiction, Dreamers of the Day. The protagonist of our story, Agnes Shanklin, has lived through the Great War and the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, although her family did not. Finding herself an unmarried heiress at 38 and unable to continue teaching because 'There were so many demobilized soldiers needing work that we ladies were often summarily dismissed from employment,¿ she remakes herself (with the help of Bob Hope¿s future wife, Millie) and takes a long dreamed of trip to Egypt and the Holy Lands. There she finds herself frequently in the company of Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and the infamous T.E. Lawrence (not to mention a romantic liason with a German spy), all gathered for the Cairo Conference of 1921 at which decisions with far-reaching impact will be made regarding the post-World War I division of the Middle East. Taking her tale from the days of peace, progress and prosperity before the Great War through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Agnes Shanklin remains a likable heroine you will want to stick with to the very end. Russell¿s usual strong characterizations, straight-forward writing and gift for telling a story are again strongly in evidence in Dreamers of the Day, a book I highly recommend.
I loved the mix of fiction with reality and the historical characters that made their appearance. It was interesting, captivating and a good read
Historically a very interesting book - and a clever easy-to-read history of a critical time in relatively recent middle eastern history. At times one wishes for a strong editor's hand, but just keep reading. It might be good as one way for young people (especially women) to learn history in a pleasant way. Well worth sharing with a friend.
This is an easy to read historical novel. It describes life in the U.S. during the early 1900s plus it provides a birds-eye-view of an actual meeting in which the real people who redrew the map of the middle east after WWI heatedly debate their political motivations. In addition, there is a little makeover advice for the socially inhibited.
This is not a book I would have picked up had I not received a copy through the Early Reviewers Club. As it turns out, I really enjoyed it and have passed it along to others who have enjoyed it as well. What I liked most about the book was Agnes. She struck me as unusual heroine with her own unique path to follow. Mary Doria Russell created an extremely engaging character with Agnes and her traveling companion Rosie. Unlike a lot of the reviewers, I enjoyed the way the book ended. I found it to be unexpected and original.
Dreamers of the Day gives us a glimpse into the events that occurred at the Cairo Conference, which led to the partitioning of the Middle East after World War One. The story is told in the voice of fictional character, Agnes Shanklin, a middle-aged American spinster who travels to Egypt after the deaths of her family members in the great flu epidemic. The reader sees both the unfurling of the historical events of the time and the blossoming of Agnes, who experiences a personal awakening and falls in love with a German spy.I enjoyed the parallel that Russell creates between Agnes¿s relationship with her mother and the relationship between the Western powers and the people of the Middle East. Agnes¿s mother was always quick to criticize her eldest daughter and took no pains to hide the fact that she felt Agnes to be an inferior specimen. She assumed that she knew best, and that Agnes should be grateful for all of the decisions made on her behalf, whether or not they took Agnes¿s happiness into account. Churchill and most of the others felt the same way about the nations in the Middle East. It was only natural that all nations should aspire to be exactly like Britain, unthinkable that they might not desire that. As Agnes points out, it was always oatmeal for breakfast, a preference for eggs entirely beside the point.On the whole, the book was a bit of a disappointment to me. (Admittedly, my expectations were high ¿ after all, this is from the author of The Sparrow and Thread of Grace.) We witness Agnes¿s personal interactions with historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. I imagine that the historical aspects of the novel would be extremely interesting to someone already very familiar with the events of the period. Since I am not, Agnes¿s observation of events seems disjointed. Interspersed with everything are long descriptions of the places visited, the styles of the day, and even the habits of Agnes¿s dog. It just didn¿t flow together as well as it might have.
I received this book as an Early Reviewer book. It is my first Mary Doria Russell novel. I did enjoy this book and like Russell's writing style. I enjoyed reading about Agnes life during that time period. It is great to read a novel like this and end up learning something about that time period. It did get a bit bogged down by all the Middle Eastern talk during the middle of the book, but I was able to get past that and enjoy the rest of the story. I will definitely read another Russell novel and will recommend this one to my book clubs.
This historical novel/romance novel takes the 1921 Cairo Conference which set the stage for the "modern" MIddle East. For me, the author here would have been better served by focusing more on the historical part of the novel than the romance part.The idea that a handful of people could make decisions affecting whole populations and that those decisions are still reverberating for us today, i.e. Iraq, is a topic worth more discussion. More could have been done in this book by exploring the complexities of the personalities of Bell, Churchill and Lawrence.The romance was rather predictable. A middle aged woman who had been devoted to her emotionally unavailable mother is freed to experience all the joy that life has to offer after the mother passes away during the great flu epidemic (another topic that could have been mined for more emotion).Three stars because the setting is one of interest, and there are some very well written passages.
Having begun her fiction career with two novels of science fiction, Mary Doria Russell now offers her second volume of historical fiction, Dreamers of the Day. The protagonist of our story, Agnes Shanklin, has lived through the Great War and the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, although her family did not. Finding herself an unmarried heiress at 38 and unable to continue teaching because "There were so many demobilized soldiers needing work that we ladies were often simmarily dismissed from employment,¿ she remakes herself (with the help of Bob Hope¿s future wife, Millie) and takes a long dreamed of trip to Egypt and the Holy Lands. There she finds herself frequently in the company of Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and the infamous T.E. Lawrence, not to mention romantically involved with a German spy, all gathered for the Cairo Conference of 1921 at which decisions with far-reaching impact will be made regarding the post-World War I division of the Middle East.Taking her tale from the days of peace, progress and prosperity before the Great War through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Agnes Shanklin remains a likable heroine you will want to stick with to the very end. Russell¿s usual strong characterizations, straight-forward writing and gift for telling a story are again strongly in evidence in Dreamers of the Day, a book I highly recommend.
Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors. She weaves complex stories that really capture your attention, whether it is historical fiction like this of her literary science fiction, she is worth your time.
Like her previous novel, Dreamers of the Day is historical fiction. Unlike her previous novels it's not heart-wrenching. Set between the wars, the book stars Agnes, a spinster schoolteacher, who travels to the Middle East after losing her entire family to the Great Influenza, and there becomes involved in events that have had an effect on the world up until today.
Dreamers of the Day is the story of Agnes Shanklin, spinster and former school teacher, who after losing her entire family to the influenza epidemic of 1919 decides to do something daring -- take a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land. Following in the footsteps of her late sister and brother-in-law, who were missionaries, Agnes has a much more secular adventure. Upon arriving in Cairo, she meets up with T. E. Lawrence, an old friend of her sister; Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill, among others delegates to the Cairo Conference that will decide the fate of the lands of the Middle East. She also meets a charming German man, Karl Weilbacher, who is an old acquaintance of Lawrence's -- and a spy.As Agnes finds herself drawn into the circle of delegates, she also falls in love with Weilbacher. From Weilbacher and Lawrence, we learn much about the politics of the region, which haven't changed much in the intervening years. In fact, it becomes clear that much of the trouble besetting the modern Middle East has roots in the boundaries drawn by that small group of Europeans at a posh Cairo hotel.But the main attraction of the story is not the politics and intrigue; it is the story of Agnes and how she grows from a dominated, obedient daughter to a fully realized and independent woman. Her friendships with Lawrence and Weilbacher are the heart of the story, as is her struggle to reconcile her own ambivalent feelings with her sister's ardent faith. The most delightful character is Agnes' dachshund Rosie, who accompanies her mistress to Egypt and has a few adventures of her own. It is through Rosie that Agnes meets Weilbacher, and also through her that Agnes learns the truth of her relationship with him.Agnes is a wonderful narrator, who by her own admission tends to ramble off on tangents. Her transition from frumpy schoolmarm to fashionable flapper is well done and everything she does rings true to her character. There is a slightly didactic tone to many of the passages, but this is to be expected from a school teacher. All in all, I found Dreamer of the Day an engrossing story of one woman's life amid the chaos of a time in history all too much like our own.
This is the story of Agnes Shanklin, a middle-aged woman from Ohio who has been under the thumb of her mother her entire life. Then, in 1919, the influenza epidemic takes the lives of her entire family and she suddenly finds herself the heiress of a sizable chunk of change and free from any obligations. She decides to take a trip to Egypt, and in 1921 find herself mixed up in the periphery of the Cairo Peace Convention.Mary Doria Russell, the author of one of my favorite novels, "The Sparrow," is an amazing storyteller, but this book left me unsatisfied. It felt a bit Forrest Gumpish in that Agnes happened to be on the scene for these important historical events. I wasn't able to suspend disbelief enough to accept that a no-name woman from Ohio would be welcomed into the social and political circles of the likes of T.E. Lawrence, Lady Gertrude Bell, and Winston Churchill.I also felt, reading this book, like I was being preached to--not about God--and it seemed the author made a special point of not making this about God--but about war and peace and how we should all treat each other as equals. We should all let everybody make their own decisions, and we should learn from our mistakes of the past and not continue to make the same mistakes now. A little of this would have been ok, but she was relentless. I felt like she was preaching to the choir and I grew a bit weary of hearing about it.I also felt that the idea of Agnes telling this from the grave was a little lame. Agnes is Forrest Gump even in purgatory, as she looks down on the earth and discusses war and current events with the likes of Ptolemy XIII, Saint Francis, Napoleon Bonaparte, and George McClellan. This section just seems hokey and random.Despite all of these things, and despite the fact that the narrator's attention seem to flitter from one subject to the next, I really did enjoy this novel. I was engrossed in the story and didn't want to put it down, wondering what might possibly happen next. Plus, it is a helpful history lesson and a bit of insight into why the Middle East is having the troubles it's having now and why what we're doing now to try to fix it is unlikely to be successful.
There are many wonderful things about this book. Russell does a terrific job of recreating the time and the places where it is set, and to a large extent the people, real and fictional, who populate it. The main character is interesting, and the romance that forms a large part of the plot generally avoids cliché and resolves in a manner I did not expect. Certainly the Cairo Conference at the center of the novel was critical in creating the world situation in which we now find ourselves, and learning about it is both relevant and interesting. As for the ending, it took me utterly by surprise.However (you knew that was coming), all that said, the novel frequently falls into the trap of preachiness, and in the author's eagerness to point out the relevance of her setting to today, she sometimes puts dialogue in people's mouths that does not feel plausible, but is there merely to make a point. For example, in one dinner scene, the following exchange takes place:Gertrude Bell: "[W]hen we have made Mesopotamia a model state, there won't be an Arab in Syria or Palestine who won't want to be part of it ...."Colonel Arnold Nelson: "[Y]ou can't simply draw a line around Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra and declare everything inside it a nation...."There is also an early passage in which the narrator, out of nowhere, launches into a rant against the growing consumerism that followed World War I; not only is it jarring, but it is almost instantly contradicted when she visits a hated department store and has an epiphany resulting in a personal transformation because of the purchase of an entire new wardrobe. Finally, the book ends with a direct lecture to contemporary readers. Even though I generally agree with the author, I found this intrusive and unnecessary.The book is certainly worth reading for its depiction of the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, as well as its character sketches of such historical figures as T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. I only wish the author had trusted her readers to make the necessary connections to today, rather than wielding a sledgehammer.
Mary Doria Russell has created another winner in her new book Dreamers of the Day. It is the story of a school teacher Agnes Shanklin, who survives the great influenza and left without family embarks on a trip to the Middle East with her 'flawed' but beloved dachshund. Here she encounters some notable historic figures such as Winston Churchill, Mrs. Churchill and T. E. Lawrence. While the plot is not as intricate as her complex historical tale A Thread of Grace where we follow the Italian resistance at the end of WWII, we do however find Agnes at the Cairo peace conference attended by notable historic presences. Agnes is a well developed character that I found myself rooting for, as I watched her transformation. But I wished for more of the friends I had found in her other novels such as Emilio Sandoz, the Jesuit priest in The Sparrow, or Sophia, the AI expert in the Children of God. These characters, like Agnes and her dog Rosie, will linger as friends in the back of my mind for a long while. I felt as if I knew them all personally. All in all it was a good read, the disappointments were in comparison to the fabulous historical complexity of Russell's A Thread of Grace and in searching for traces not only of the old friends I had found in The Sparrow and Children of God, but in the sheer level of inventiveness that I found in this pair of books. Mary Doria Russell is one of those authors that I find myself eagerly awaiting their next new work. She writes with an intensity that captures and holds you throughout the book, and leaves you waiting for more. A recommended read! This review was based on the Advance Reader's Edition.
I liked Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. Agnes Shanklin is as real as any living, breathing person I've met.The plot of the story is simple. Agnes, an "old maid" (this is about 1921) schoolteacher, takes a trip to Egypt after recovering from the war and the influenza epidemic of 1919. While there, she meets some of the famous statesmen and military men who were "solving" the middle east problem. She also falls in love while there.The plot is not what held my interest. As Agnes tells her story, you know that she lived through what she is telling. Reading it, I sensed that some of the gaps in my knowledge of the period were being filled without the drudgery of history lectures. I found myself fascinated by a topic that had not particularly interested me before.I was delighted to read in the acknowledgments at the end, that Ms. Russell had done her homework and invented only Agnes's story. Where it crossed the well known individuals, she kept them true to reality.While I didn't hate it, I felt the final chapter was added on to express some opinions of the author that didn't naturally fit into the story. The naturalness, and reality, that I loved about the rest of the book fell away here. Though Russell gave hints early on, it just didn't work for me. Nonetheless, the book was a good read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in love stories and/or the early twentieth century.
I really enjoyed Dreamers of The Day. I thought Russell's use of characterization was some of the best I can remember. The story is told in first person by Agnes Shanklin where she basically tells her life story with particular emphasis on her big trip to the Holy Land and the people that she met there who were attending the Cairo Convention. It was hard for me to believe that it wasn't a memoir. Shanklin's narration is just gushing with life and emotion from another time. Sometimes I was irritated with her decisions or her how she didn't see things about her mother that we so obvious. In other words, I really cared about her even if she was often silly and annoying, it was just very true to life. Over the course of the book you really see her grow in a very interesting way. Although she deals with a lot of women's issues I do think that men could really enjoy this book as well. The romance didn't play a major part and it was kind of unique and unexpected in some ways.Russell also did a magnificent job of witting about what travel would have been like for someone in the 20s. It was fascinating to read about Cairo, Jerusalem, the Nile and Agnes' impressions of them. Reading about the Cairo Convention was almost heartbreaking when you consider where we are now because a few nations decided to impose there will on a large area of the world. And the almost flippant nature that they seem to decide who will be in charge and what will be a nation. Iraq is formed and one of the characters tells Agnes it will never work. The attention to detail with Churchill and Lawrence was so detailed and nuanced that I really grew to trust Russell about what she said about them and everything so in that respect it really was a history lesson.The part of the book that I really hesitate with is the last chapter. I felt it was over the top and didn't really add to the story, it was a game changer that I didn't think was at all necessary.I think this book would be great for students, especially as an opening to discussions of Post WWI or as a primer for studying the Middle East. It was a really engaging text while at the same time being very informative and from many different viewpoints while not getting bogged down in any one topic. I also think fan's of women's fiction and historical fiction would enjoy this book quite a lot.
"Dreamers of the Day" centers around a fictional reenactment of the 1921 Cairo Conference that divided the Ottoman Empire after World War I, resulting in the present configuration of newly formed countries in the Middle East. Prominent among the luminaries in attendance to divvy up the spoils (and keep them from the French) were Winston and Clementine Churchill, Gertrude Bell, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Sir Percy Cox, and our narrator, one Agnes Shanklin from Ohio, who was accompanied by her charming dachshund Rosie and her German-Jewish-spy-lover Karl. Oh yes, and she was telling us the story after already having died (from smoking, she asserts). At the outset of the book, our dear departed narrator declaims: ¿my little story has become your history. You won¿t really understand your times until you understand mine.¿ And this is just the beginning of her didacticism. Russell seems desperate to let us know, through Agnes' many tirades, how unfair it was that the Arabs could not determine their own fate, but rather were dictated to, and manipulated by, larger powers. As if this were an unusual phenomenon. She also wants us to know what life was like during the Great Influenza, the aftermath of the First World War, and the Great Depression, and does a fine job with minutiae.She wants us to be wary, as was Colonel Lawrence, of ¿dreamers of the day: (they) are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.¿ But Agnes, who ¿comes of age¿ even as she makes a daring jaunt to Cairo, feels that ¿a dreamer of the day is dangerous only when he believes that others are less: less than their own best selves and certainly less than he is.¿ A true prophet, she believes, is more like a good parent or schoolteacher, who helps others define and attain their best true selves.The story proceeds very much along the lines of "Churchill¿s Folly" by Christopher Catherwood (named in the Acknowledgments) ¿ even the pictures she describes are taken from the Catherwood book. Also the tone: a non-academic, almost casual presentation of the events that created Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. One difference: Agnes seemed much more enamored of Lawrence than the facts as presented by Catherwood would warrant. But the Egypt she describes was the romantic Egypt of the movie ¿Lawrence of Arabia,¿ and I believe she couldn¿t avoid the fantasy of the Orient anymore than the millions of pilgrims who traveled there and drank the waters of the Nile in the hope of immortality. One possible influence: Russell¿s research into the deliberations and correspondence of conferees suggested to her that Lawrence claimed he cared for every individual man in his army, while for Churchill and the others, they were all pieces of chess, or cannon fodder. So her sympathies lie with Lawrence. And with us, we of the Future, for what the Imperialists wrought in Egypt back in 1919.I should also note, that the book could stand on its own as a love letter to dachshunds. If you've ever owned one, you'll see she gets them exactly right.
I love Doria Russell's writing style and much of this book was entertaining to read. She did a wonderful job of capturing life and events just following WWI and the great influenza epidemic. She also gives a foundation for the formation of the modern day Middle East and explains why there is still so much bloodshed and discord in this region to this day. My criticism is as follows: throwing in too many encounters with famous historical figures made the story seem too contrived, as did the narrator breaking the fourth wall and lecturing the reader, and the narration from beyond the dead detracted more from the story than it added.
I use three criteria to judge a work of historical fiction:1. Was it believable? Could these events have really happened?2. Did I enjoy it as a piece of writing? Was the dialogue interesting, were the characters well drawn, etc.3. Did this book encourage me to learn more about a particular place, person, or period in history?This book "Dreamers of the Day" failed on two of these three standards, and as such, I would not recommend it.1. I did not find it believable that a dowdy, middle-aged spinster would be hobnobbing with Winston Churchill and other known historical figures. I also could not imagine important government secrets being shared with her. Therefore, the historical accuracy was lacking.2. I did not find this book especially well written, nor did I find the characters sympathetic. I was especially put off by the final section of the book (Part 3-Ohio and Beyond). It seemed farfetched and did not follow the rest of the story.3. In this final criteria, Dreamers of the Day was a sucessful read. It has furthered my interest in the the influenza epidemic, the diplomatic career of Winston Churchill, and the history of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.In summary, this book was disappointing because Mary Doria Russell was so highly recommended. However, it did spark a curiosity in learning more about this time in history.
A piece of historical fiction is set in Ohio, Egypt, Palestine, and Jerusalem with a focus on the post WWI period. The book is an entertaining read, but a disappointment after the great research and narrative that went into the author's previous work, A Thread of Grace, also historical fiction.The story is told posthumously by Agnes Shanklin, a spinster from Ohio who travels with her dachshund to Egypt in 1919. There in Miss Marple fashion, she meets up with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and improbably becomes attached to a group of Cairo conferees including Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, Percy Cox, and A.T. Wilson. Because of this association and her dachshund, Agnes becomes involved and has a spinsterish affair with a German intelligence officer who can profit from knowing the plans of the British for the Middle East.The book touches on several themes or threads that that the author never fully develops: The author brings the reader into the conference in Cairo, asserting it's importance without filling in the back story. Instead she seems to assert the importance of the conference by tossing in names of cities and factions that are often mentioned in today's news (2007). Religious skepticism is also clumsily woven into the story ending with Agnes narrating the story from the afterlife with the Nile cast as the River Styx. Greek mythology situated in an Egyptian river? The author informs us that Agnes' name is taken from the author's deceased high school English teacher as a commemoration. That is tied up with some belief that perhaps the character Agnes is being kept in the afterworld Nile because someone living still remembers her. The 1918 Influenza epidemic is covered more extensively although its inclusion explains Agnes' ability to afford such a trip.In summary, the book is an uneven performance from an author who did a stellar job of research, character development, and writing in her three previous books. At best, it inspired me to read the Wikipedia entries for Gertrude Bell, T. E. Lawrence, & Faisal I of Iraq.
An exploration of WWI and the US role in it and the aftermath, through the vehicle of Agnes, a fictional teacher who survives the great influenza epidemic that killed so many, travels to Egypt, and interacts with famous people.Agnes is naive and fairly passive in her interactions with people, though she does at least speak up pretty directly when challenged. As a character study, one can see why she lets herself be used by anyone who takes an interest in her. The part in the US where she's observing and then changing after the epidemic is more convincing than the latter half of the book. The awkwardly-inserted close-ups of T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill were interesting and seem to have been well-researched. Not a keeper for me, but as a window into the times, not pointless.
I have not had the pleasure of reading any of her previous novels, but Mary Doria Russel's Dreamers of the Day is a lovely, well researched, historical novel with a touch of romance, political intrique and espionage. The story , written almost as a memoir, is about Agnes Shanklin who is a middle-aged spinster schoolteacher who has lost her entire family during the Great Influenza of 1919. Surviving such an ordeal has given Agnes the courage and finances to be more bold in her own life and leads to her traveling to see the Arabia that T.E. Lawrence has made seem so romantic. The novel is set in the United States and the Middle East, with the bulk of the plot set in 1919. Many of the characters are real people such as Winston Churchill, his real life security guard Walter H. Thompson, Gertrude Bell, and the charismatic and complex Lawrence of Arabia. They are in Egypt to attend the Cairo Peace Conference and to create what will become the modern Middle East.My hat goes off to Mary Doria Russel as Dreamers of the Day aspires to be a novel that deals with many crucial moments in and aspects of our not too distant history. Touching on World War I, war propaganda, the Great Influenza of 1919, Women's Sufferage, European Colonialism, the celebrity fame aspect of T.E. Lawrence, the mystery and romanticism attached to Lawrence of Arabia and the Middle East, overbearing parenting, body image, the industrial revolution in fashion, the beginning of strategic marketing, propaganda for profit, materialism, commercialism, President Wilson and the League of Nations, teaching, poverty, job upheaval for women when the soldiers return from war, Culture shock, comming of age in middle age, romance late in life, the intellectual struggle to reconcile spirituality and religion, faith for profit, tourism dishonesty, Religious and cultural intolerance and misunderstanding, the persecuted Job-like aspect of Jerusalem, AntiSemitism,German perceptions after WWI, the potential importance of oil in the middle east, the arrogance of conquering nations, geopolitics, ancient history, how to ride a camel, espionage, adultery, weiner dogs, missionary schools, the importance of cultural exposureand cultural assimlation, The Roaring Twenties, Stock investing as social entertainment for women of the Twenties, metaphysics, a fantastical version of the afterlife -- -- and all of this in just under 250 pages!Dreamers of the Day has provoked me into thinking about certain universal themes and issues from a different perspective. Ms. Russel has created an interesting literary character in the person of Agnes Shanklin and one of the most powerful aspects, for me, is to see the reality of the day from her point of view. Agnes is an intelligent caring woman of the time, who because of her overbearing mother and the oppressive elements of being a woman at the end of the Victorian era, could more eaisily identify and empathize with the political realities of the Middle East in 1919. She was also an American who knew her countries own revolutionary history with Great Britain. In writing this book in first person with Agnes Shanklin as the narrator, the book gives a very unique and ususual perspective of history as seen through the eyes of an ordinary woman with little power, not as one of the powerful men who record history for the future. This novel has also provoked me into wanting to dig deeper and learn more about this period in history. Dreamers of the Day has nudged me into learning more about many of the historical elements within the novel. The author generously gives us some of her sources and recommendations at the back of the book. This book is NOT a suspense novel. It moves at a quiet amble and I don't think I had a single moment when I was on the edge of my chair waiting to see what would happen next. That said, it was very interesting and I do not regret reading it. I liked this book, and it lingers still in my memory a few weeks after fini
The cover blurb didn't really win me over-- what drew me into the book was the author's name. Russell's The Sparrow remains one of the most haunting books I've ever read. Dreamers of the Day-- in a different genre entirely (historical fiction rather than science fiction)-- shares many of the strengths of the earlier book: strong, compelling characters, interesting philosophical questions. But ultimately it's a much more forgettable book. It was interesting to read more about the Cairo Conference that divided up the middle east-- and certainly timely-- yet the timeliness of it was at times weilded mighty clumsily and many of the lessons a bit too didactic. An interesting read, but one that I can't give my highest, highest praise to.