Book Review: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. – T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
In Mary Doria Russell’s superb Dreamers of the Day, we meet T. E. Lawrence (that would be Lawrence of Arabia — yes, think Peter O’Toole in swirling white robes) and Winston Churchill in Cairo of 1921, as they and other movers and shakers carve up the post-Ottoman Empire Middle East into the geography we know today. But these luminaries are not the protagonists of Dreamers of the Day. Instead, this quiet and lovely novel centers on plain-Jane Agnes Shanklin, a 40-ish spinster from Cleveland who sets out on her life’s one grand adventure and meets the the men who changed — and made — history.
Agnes is quite alone in the world following the loss of her entire family — including her beloved sister Lily — to a deadly influenza epidemic. Finding herself an heiress and finally free from her mother’s criticisms and repressive expectations, Agnes decides to set sail for the lands in which her sister Lily had worked as a missionary. Accompanied only by her beloved dachshund Rosie, and bedecked in brand-new finery courtesy of a hip young shopgirl, Agnes embarks on a first-class vacation to Cairo.
By happenstance, she is booked at the luxury hotel where Lawrence, Churchill, and the rest of the 1921 Cairo Conference are meeting, and is soon drawn into their circle of dinner guests and acquaintances, her path eased by Lawrence’s high regard for the deceased Lily. At the same time, Agnes is wooed by the enigmatic but attractive Karl, an attentive German man who showers Agnes with attention — but is he really interested in Agnes’s charms, or is there something else he’s after?
In a way, Dreamers of the Day is two intriguing stories in one. First, it’s a history lesson wrapped up in fiction. I learned so much from this book about how the modern Middle East came into being and how so many problems can be traced back to decisions made by men with very particular agendas. Second, it’s the story of a woman who goes from wallflower to a woman of strength and purpose. Agnes is a marvelous lead character. She has a refreshingly honest view of the world around her and her place in it, and as she gains the courage to take charge of her own life and start ignoring the forces keeping her down, it’s lovely to see her blossom.
I should know by now to trust Mary Doria Russell, author of the incomparable The Sparrow and the devastating A Thread of Grace. When her most recent novel, Doc, was released, I thought I’d pass it by. After all, what interest do I have in Westerns? I finally read it, a year after its publication, and was blown away by the beauty of the writing, the honor and nobility of the main character, and the clarity and vividness of this window into a world that I really knew next to nothing about. Likewise for Dreamers of the Day: I initially held off on reading this, not feeling all that compelled by a book that I’d heard was about a dusty old meeting in Cairo. And here I am, having read the book, feeling inspired, uplifted, and educated by it. Dreamers of the Day has a subtle, peaceful aura; the storyline is not filled with pulse-pounding chase scenes or explosions; lives are not immediately at risk. And yet, Agnes’s growing confidence as she interacts with that era’s political rock stars is fascinating reading, and I never once grew bored or impatient.
I’m so pleased to have finally read Dreamers of the Day. First of all, I can now say that I’m a Mary Doria Russell “completist”, having read all of her published works (and eagerly awaiting the next)! But most of all, I’m happy to have experienced Dreamers of the Day in its own right. This fascinating look at history and the people who shape it is well worth reading, and I absolutely recommend it.
Finally, I can’t help but include a couple of choice quotes from Dreamers of the Day:
Maybe that’s the way to tell the dangerous men from the good ones. A dreamer of the day is dangerous when he believes that others are less: less than their own best selves and certainly less than he is. They exist to follow and flatter him, and to serve his purposes.
A true prophet, I suppose, is like a good parent. A true prophet see others, not himself. He helps them define their own half-formed dreams, and puts himself at their service. He is not diminished as they become more. He offers courage in one hand and generosity in the other.
And some words of wisdom that I just adore:
When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is:
Read to children.
And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.