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A 'thoroughly modern' Middle East

A novel about the Cairo Conference of 1921.

By Yvonne Zipp / May 22, 2008



It’s hard to imagine a less intrepid explorer than Agnes Shanklin, Ohio schoolteacher. The middle-aged spinster (who says she looks like a cross-eyed young Eleanor Roosevelt) has never been outside her home state. And yet, Agnes tells readers of Dreamers of the Day, they’d better pay close attention. “My little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.”

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Mary Doria Russell’s fourth novel, “Dreamers of the Day,” takes its title from T.E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”: “[T]he dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Agnes herself isn’t much for daydreaming – it’s too painful. When a man who was courting Agnes falls in love with her pretty younger sister and whisks her off to Lebanon, “no one was less surprised than me,” she says. Agnes, meanwhile, gets to stay in Cleveland and play fun games with her mother such as “Guess what you’ve done wrong now?” If Agnes makes the mistake of asking how she’d offended her mother, Mumma replies, “I shouldn’t have to tell you, Agnes. If you loved me, you would know.”

Then the great influenza epidemic of 1919 wipes out her entire family. Reeling with grief, but finally free of her mother’s critical eye, Agnes decides to live a little. One makeover later, she’s on her way to Cairo.

“Dreamers of the Day” doesn’t shift into high gear until about 50 pages in, but patient readers will be rewarded when Agnes arrives at the Semiramis Hotel and stumbles into history. When the doorman refuses to let Agnes inside (either because of her flapper costume or because of her dachshund), the commotion attracts the attention of T.E. Lawrence and Lady Gertrude Bell, who, along with Winston Churchill and assorted other luminaries, are in Egypt to redraw the boundaries of the modern Middle East.

“Rarely has so much been decided by so few to the detriment of so many as in that fancy hotel back in 1921,” Agnes says from her vantage point in the afterlife. The parallels between British decisionmaking in 1921 and US policy in Iraq today are startling, and Russell makes the most of them. (She manages to do this without putting words in her famous characters’ mouths. Many times, she is quoting.)

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