Title: Dreamers of the Day
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Release Date: December 16, 2008
Genre: Historical Fiction
Challenge: A to Z Challenge
Rating: 4 out of 5
From the back cover:
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.
Dreamers of the Day is the story of Agnes Shanklin, set during the creation of the modern Middle East in 1921. I thought this book was well-crafted and very interesting. Russell obviously took her time researching this novel thoroughly.
I had two favorite things about this book. First, I liked how Russell depicted the talks about partitioning the Middle East. She really makes it clear how arbitrary the entire process was. A lot of the problems within the Middle East today go back to those talks and the ways the area was divided by the Europeans. There wasn’t much concern for differences between ethnic groups; instead, the primary motive seemed to be European access to Middle Eastern oil fields.
Also, I loved the descriptions in the novel. Agnes visits Cairo, Jerusalem and Palestine; the narrative is a sort of travelogue. Agnes’ visit to Jerusalem is especially interesting. She gets very frustrated with the city because it seems to prey on tourists. For example, the Dome of the Rock is supposed to be the hill where Jesus was crucified – so why does she have to go down steps in order to get to it? She later realizes that the city level has been steadily rising, one layer on top of another, but her feelings don’t change. Despite not being Christian, Muslim , or Jewish, I have always wanted to visit Jerusalem. Her disappointment with the city makes me wonder what people feel when they visit, especially those that are religious within one of these faiths. Are they overwhelmed with the history and spirituality of the place, or disappointed? What’s more important, what really happened or what a place makes you think or feel?
One thing I wish is that I’d known more about is Lawrence of Arabia. He’s a relatively major character in the book, and though I am aware of who he is and what he did, reading this novel made me want to see the Peter O’Toole movie.
While Dreamers of the Day is very interesting, it is also a bit slow. Though it is short, there are a lot of details packed into the book. The main character of the book also seems to be the locales in the Middle East more than Agnes herself – while she does develop as a character, it seems to be a bit flat. Still, it is a very interesting novel about a time period that has been missing within historical fiction.