Dreamers of the Day is Mary Doria Russell’s novel that is as fresh if not fresher today than when first published in 2008.
Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day is as fresh and new today as when published in March 2008, and given the state of the world today, it may be even fresher, which is exactly as it seems each time I read it.
Why read a book more than once? For me, the reason has always been practical or serendipitous. Dreamers of the Day was an advance review copy that I read and hand-sold when working at Clayton Books in 2008.
The second read took place five years later, with 9/11 still fresh in America’s collective psyche. Russell’s book is not only a coming-of-age story about a middle-aged Ohio school teacher’s sojourn to Egypt. It is also a Middle East geographic and political coming-of-age history lesson centered around the first Cairo Conference held in 1921, with a stellar cast divvying up what was left of a defeated (WWI) Turkish empire.
In 2010, I retired, packed my books, and moved to Reno. I didn’t read it again until 2020 when Covid’s remain-at-home advice sent me to my bookshelves, and there it was, Dreamers of the Day. Russell describes the Spanish Flu epidemic on the first page: “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 far-away land, but dying here and now, right in front of you.” I didn’t have to imagine that. I had to comfort my adult children via Zoom as they dealt with their father’s death from COVID. How much timelier could a novel get?
The novel’s fourth read was in preparation for a book club in Reno. Dreamers of the Day never seems to lose its freshness. The Middle East is still a mess. It is the voice of Agnes Shanklin telling the reader at the end of the first paragraph, “You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine” that reminded me why this novel is so worth reading.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Dreamers of the Day is Agnes Shanklin’s story. She is a forty-year-old Ohio school teacher, who, because of the Great Epidemic (the Spanish Flu), becomes the sole survivor of the Shanklin family. Her brother, sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and her mother are dead. Agnes is single and, according to her mother, she has little hope of ever marrying or being anything more than a teacher. But with the death of her widowed, overachieving, and ever-critical mother, Agnes becomes heir to a small but comfortable “fortune.”
Agnes makes use of her “fortune” by deciding to travel (with Rosie, her Dachshund) to Egypt and the Holy Land where before their deaths her beloved sister and family had lived as missionaries. Before she finalizes her travel plans, Agnes puts aside the warning voice of her dead mother (a voice that exists throughout the novel) and with Rosie in-tow timidly heads for a fancy department store to buy appropriate clothes for her trip. Her thoroughly modern (1920) salesgirl not only outfits Agnes but sends her off with the latest bob.
When Agnes arrives at a swish Cairo hotel, despite her reservation she is strongly denied admittance because of Rosie. A hubbub of splendid proportions ensues with a clutch of British military and civilians coming down the hotel’s grand staircase, Agnes attempting to convince the concierge of her paid-for reservation, and Rosie misbehaving. Among the British, is none-other than T. E. Lawrence who comes to her rescue. He has mistaken Agnes for her sister, who had befriended him when he was a graduate student traveling in Jebail. Within minutes Agnes is also in the company of Gertrude Bell and a young Winston Churchill. It is Gertrude Bell who arranges for Agnes and Rosie to move to another hotel, one which, with Bell’s influence, welcomes Agnes and Rosie.
As I return to Dreamers of The Day to check facts while writing this review, I’m once again overwhelmed by Russell’s ability to write not only history, but a fabulous travelog description of the people and landscapes of Egypt, Palestine (pre-Israel), and the Nile, along with revealing the lengths that women have traveled and still seek to travel since the turn of the twentieth century. The story includes a mysterious dachshund-loving German who provides the romance long missing from Agnes’s life. Russell’s coverage of the first Cairo Conference is a telescopic lens into the ground-breaking political leaders riding on the tails of the Ottoman Empire’s demise, and their dividing up the Middle East with repercussions still felt today.
And I, for one, loved the novel’s end in the hereafter voice of Agnes and centuries of other voices all waiting for the last leg of their travels. But I cannot close the review without returning to Russell’s opening words published in 2008: “You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.” – Sunny Solomon
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