Dreamers of the Day
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Date of Publication: December 16, 2008
If you are not familiar with Mary Doria Russell, she is a very versatile author who has published science fiction, westerns and historical fiction. All of her books are well written and are character driven. She is also very entertaining to follow on Facebook. Dreamers of the Day was published in 2008 and is a historical novel set in the early 20th century.
The main character is Agnes Shanklin, a spinster who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. The first section of the book describes her early life with a domineering, belittling mother and her family's battle with the Great Influenza of 1918. Agnes is her family's sole survivor. In the final two thirds of the book Agnes takes control of her life, decides to travel and arrives in Egypt during the Cairo conference in 1921. There she is caught up in a fantastic cast of historical characters including T. E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine and Lady Gertrude Bell. Agnes finds herself embroiled in conversations regarding rule of the Middle East following World War I. Arab self-rule comes in conflict with British, French, Jewish, Palestinian and German interests in the area. The Cairo Conference of 1921 was held from March 12-30 and was convened by the British to sort out conflicting policies regarding the Middle East. The outcome of this conference defined British and French jurisdictions and created the country of Iraq. It has been said that you cannot understand the modern conflict in the Middle East without first understanding the politics and the aftermath of World War I and this book helps shed light on that subject.
An amusing secondary "character" is Agnes' noisy and fussy pet daschund Rosie. Agnes goes everywhere with Rosie, including the Middle East. The problems of traveling with this dog not only allows Agnes to meet some of the famous characters but provides several comic episodes as well. Agnes and Rosie's excursion on the Nile in a fishing boat is a highlight of the entire book.
Another hallmark of this author's books is her incredible attention to detail, a result of tireless research. She has obviously done her homework here, presenting a mesmerizing tour of many famous sites, including the pyramids of Gaza and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Agnes becomes very perplexed by the commercialism and crowded, tourist trap nature of the holy sites in Jerusalem (and this was in 1921!). This is part of her description of visiting the Holy Sepulchre:
"The farther into the shrine we moved, the staler the air became. Around the periphery of the shrine, the morning processions were assembling, and at least two kinds of incense began to waft toward us. The cloying scents mixed with the sort of crowd odor that silently proclaims a variable devotion to the principles of good hygiene. Arab workmen were taking a break from their morning's task, smoking hashish near a side altar. Eating and joking, they contributed woozy laughter to echoing wails, a rumble of muttered commentary, and the occasional shocking guffaw. Chants, chimes, and clanking metal chains added to a growing cacophony. Prayers and conversations grew louder in response."
Dreamers of the Day was entertaining and educational at the same time. I enjoyed it quite a bit and would recommend it (and any other of this author's books) highly.