It’s difficult for history to serve as a guide when so many people tend or prefer to be oblivious of it. Whether overcoming that tendency motivates Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day is unclear. Regardless, her novel may well teach more people some basics about the origins of the modern Middle East than many books devoted to the subject.
Ostensibly the tale of an Ohio school teacher, Agnes Shanklin (so named in honor of an English teacher Russell had in high school), the book is a larger journey in both a geopolitical and personal context. Shanklin saw her mother, brother, sister and her sister’s family die in the flu pandemic of 1918, which she herself barely survived. Her closest companion is her dachshund, Rosie, who at times seems an almost too predominant character. Thanks largely to a business her cool and distant mother sold several years before, Shanklin is left with the financial wherewithal to transform her austere life.
Thus, in 1921, the 40-year-old decides to set out for the Middle East because of letters her sister sent when she and her husband had been missionaries in Lebanon. Shanklin sails to Cairo, where she is unable to claim her reservation at the Semiramis Hotel because of Rosie. The hotel is the scene of the Cairo Conference of 1921. The furor created on her efforts to enter the hotel attracts the attention of several conference participants, including T.E. Lawrence, better known to many as Lawrence of Arabia. In fact, the title of the book comes from a passage in Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
In the most significant of several timely coincidences, Lawrence was friends with Shanklin’s sister. Mistaking her for her sister, Lawrence comes to Shanklin’s rescue and serves as her introduction to many of the conference participants, including Winston Churchill. Between being invited to dinner and on excursions with them and what she gathers from Karl Weilbacher, a German spy she meets because of Rosie, Dreamers of the Day becomes a combination travelogue and overview of the background and events that gave rise to the modern Middle East.
Yet Russell may ask the reader to suspend belief just a little to much. The extent to which Shanklin is readily welcomed into the lives of the conference dignitaries and how freely they share their geopolitical views and concerns with her tends to beggar the imagination. As a result, the book periodically feels like a treatment for a made-for-television movie. This is especially true for those of us who inevitably compare each of her works to the creativity and imagination of her stunning debut novel, The Sparrow.
That said, Russell still has an outstanding talent for telling a story and creating characters. Just as Dreamers of the Day provides a basic primer on the creation of today’s Middle East, Shanklin’s journey allows a firsthand look, albeit fictional, at the area and its people. This is all interlaced with the core story of a spinster embarked on her own journey of self-discovery and is all told from a unique perspective years later.
This is Russell’s second foray into historical fiction and is a generally commendable example of the genre. After all, historical fiction may be at its best when it so accurately reflects the actual history that serves as its foundation and helps readers learn about their world.
[T]he soil is so fertile that you could plant a pencil and harvest a book
Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day