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Dreamers of the Day    by Mary Doria Russell order for
Dreamers of the Day
by Mary Doria Russell
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Dreamers of the Day has everything a historical fiction aficionado could want: a fascinating era (post World War I, taking in the devastating 1919 influenza epidemic); a pivotal event (the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference); colorful characters based on real people (including Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence and Lady Gertrude Bell); and a delightfully homely middle class, middle aged heroine, Ohio schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin, who's undervalued and continually put down by her controlling Mumma and only blossoms after that lady's death leaves her a comfortable inheritance.

The author sets the scene beautifully in her second paragraph which says of the early 1900s: '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.' Then came the Great War - and the Great Influenza. The latter killed fifty million people in one year, 'millions more than died in combat on all sides, on all fronts, in four and a half years of the Great War, itself an orgy of killing' - and left Agnes and many others yearning for 'new sights, new sounds, new people'.

After the rest of her family die between the war and the epidemic, Agnes is left jobless with low self esteem and a beloved dachshund named Rosie (considered by Mumma to be 'a poor specimen of her breed', just like her daughter). In 1920, Agnes - nearly forty and needing clothes - sets of for Halle's Department Store where a young shopgirl sees her potential. Agnes becomes 'Galatea to Mildred's Pygmalion.' The next step in her reinvention of herself is to visit a medium, who - channeling Mark Twain - sows the seeds for a journey to Egypt. Off sails a newly elegant Agnes into freedom and adventure.

In Cairo, the presence of Rosie closes off the Semiramis Hotel to Agnes, but she bumps into a friend of her sister's there, Colonel Thomas Edward 'Neddy' Laurence, attending the Cairo Peace Conference. He escorts Agnes and Rosie to the comfortable Continental Hotel, where the dachsund - and perhaps also Agnes's association with Laurence - attracts the attention of congenial German spy Karl Weilbacher. As friendship and romance develop between Agnes and Karl (she's 'as giddy as a schoolgirl with a crush'), she's invited to social events with Laurence and Churchill, occasions where she does not hesitate to contribute her own strong opinions.

Karl, whose mother was a Persian Jew and who visited Persia every summer as a child, warns Agnes that foreigners oversimplify the Middle East, because 'They cannot tolerate to feel ignorant long enough to understand it.' When she speaks of her own family to him, Karl sagely concludes, 'Agnes, your mother was a tyrant', something she's not ready to hear. But their relationship survives, they travel together, and make love at Agnes' urging (though she knows that Karl is happily married). Agnes supplies him with anecdotal information until he deliberately shatters her 'mirror of infatuation', advising her on parting to freely live her days.

Agnes takes that advice, enjoying life, friends and Rosie to the full until Black Thursday forces her to seek work and thus opens up a new, enriching life to her as a school librarian. She also receives a plea for help from Karl's family in 1938, and does her best for them. The book ends with Agnes - who dies late in life from cancer - in an Egyptian afterlife in which she meets many famous people and muses on the cyclical nature of war, quoting Lawrence's words that 'the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.'

Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day is an absorbing and very intelligent historical novel, which interweaves an engaging yet realistic romance with an account of the individuals who were decision makers in the Cairo Peace Conference and set up the structure and stresses that continue to define the Middle East today. Agnes ends with her own wise advice on living: 'Read to children. / Vote. / And never buy anything from a man who's selling fear.'

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