I picked this one up based on a review here in the Cannonball by meilufay. I had never read a book by Mary Doria Russell and before this year’s Cannonball I hadn’t spent too much time in interwar Europe. Both of these things have now changed. I quite liked this story and was appreciative that it was a slim (249 page), quick read.
Dreamers of the Day is narrated by the disembodied voice of Agnes Shanklin who recounts to the reader the story of her time in Egypt during the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. That conference went about hacking up the Middle East after the Great War. Agnes is an unlikely set of eyes from which to witness this piece of history, as she freely admits since she is a 40 year old spinster elementary school teacher from Ohio. During the Influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 Agnes loses her entire family and is therefore the sole inheritor of several estates, setting her up with enough money to live comfortably, but frugally, and splurge on a trip.
She does splurge, and decides to visit Egypt and the Holy Land as she promised her now deceased sister she would do. It is there that Agnes’ path crosses T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell to name just a few. Russell does a fantastic job of using her research to build out the fictionalized versions of these characters and bring to life the behind the scenes work of bringing a great conflict to an imperfect conclusion. But this is not really where this book shines – it shines the careful illustration of Agnes’ life both pre- and post- adventure. I found the parts of the book describing the Influenza outbreak and the Great Depression a more grasping read as the middle of the book tends to get stuck in the hour by hour or minute by minute descriptions of events.
This book is full of well drawn characters and interesting story lines. This is more than a good book, but less than a great book. I described it to a friend as wonderful.
Favorite quote (in a very quotable book): “Add water, and the soil is so fertile that you could plant a pencil and harvest a book” (Russell 211).