Readers, meet your narrator: Agnes Shanklin, a plain, unmarried schoolteacher of 40 living in Ohio at the end of World War I. Although she is a spirited woman with a real thirst for knowledge, Agnes is accepting of, even mildly content with, her unremarkable place in life, and she has no reason to think things will change. But then they do. Drastically.
Mary Doria Russell, acclaimed author of such novels as Children of God and The Sparrow, brings us a delightful—and completely fantastical—story in Dreamers of the Day. When Agnes loses all of her living family members in the influenza epidemic and comes into a bit of inheritance money, she decides to realize her lifelong dream of visiting Egypt and the Holy Land. With her dog Rosie in tow, Agnes makes her way to the Middle East, where she will be far more than a mere tourist.
As rich in history as it is in character development, Dreamers of the Day gives its readers a backstage look at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference and its players, whom Agnes finds herself surrounded by during her stay at the Semiramis Hotel, the site of the conference. Before she knows it, this small-town schoolteacher is mingling with the likes of T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell as they hammer out plans to transform the Arab world. Not only does Agnes get a glimpse of history in the making, she also gets her first real taste of romance—something she assumed she would never experience—as she is courted by German spy Karl Weilbacher.
Russell perfectly captures the political and social milieus of the 1920s, driving home how important it is to consider history when dealing with present-day issues. As Agnes says at the book's opening: "My little story has become your history. You won't really understand your times until you understand mine." The fact that Agnes is telling her story after she has—yes—already died does not come across as a literary conceit but as perfectly fitting for this perfectly enchanting tale.
Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2008 January #1
A remarkably vivid account of a woman's accidental witness to history as she encounters Churchill and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, where in 1921 they redrew the map of the Middle East.Russell (Children of God, 1998, etc.) unites a dog-toting spinster touring the Holy Lands with a small but significant dot on history's timeline, creating an analysis of our current troubles in Iraq. Agnes Shanklin, long dead and narrating from a disappointingly dull afterlife, lived an unremarkable existence until her late 30s, when the great influenza epidemic killed her mother and siblings. Left alone with an inheritance, Agnes makes an uncharacteristically impulsive decision: She books a tour to Egypt and the Holy Lands. With newly bobbed hair and gauzy dropped-waist dresses, former ugly duckling Agnes leaves America a fashionable woman of means. On her first day in Cairo, she and her dachshund Rosie are banned from their hotel but are saved by a chance meeting with T.E. Lawrence and redirected to the more dog-friendly Continental. There she meets Karl Weilbacher, a German-Jewish spy who falls for Rosie and charms Agnes. Agnes spends her holiday in two camps: She's swept away on often dangerous excursions by Lawrence, Churchill and Gertrude Bell, and she engages in quiet, intelligent strolls with Karl the spy, eager to hear about Agnes's new friends. Agnes is no fool. She knows Karl has more than a passing interest in the goings on at the conference, but she's also a realist, and she sees no need to protect the interests of British imperialists. Anyway, this may be her last chance for love. At the end of the conference, arbitrary lines are drawn to create Iraq; Palestine is soon to be a Jewish homeland; and Karl rather presciently observes that "black seeds" are being sown. Russell triumphs on many levels: She crafts a solid interpretation of the event, creates in Agnes an engaging narrator and, in no small sense, offers a fine piece of travel writing as we follow Agnes down the Nile.An inspired fictional study of political folly.Agent: Jane Dystel/Dystel & Goderich Literary Management Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 November #1
Post-World War I, a spinsterish Ohio schoolteacher uses a small inheritance to journey to the Middle East-where she gets herself tangled up with T.E. Lawrence. With an 11-city tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2008 January #1
Russell's (A Thread of Grace ) fourth novel, her second work of historical fiction, focuses on the years immediately following World War I. When narrator Agnes Shanklin, an Ohio schoolteacher, finds herself at 40 the sole surviving member of her family, she decides to take a trip to Egypt and the Middle East, where her beloved missionary sister once lived and worked. There, she is thrilled to be swept up into the company of several renowned statesmen, diplomats, and spies attending the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. But she is disconcerted to learn that a man with whom she's become romantically involved may be using her to obtain inside political information. Listening for the first time to her own inner needs and wants, Agnes grows into an independent and far-thinking woman. Russell labors to provide insight into how the fate of the Middle East, including the entities of Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan, was drawn up at the time. While this aspect of the novel can sometimes be hard-going, she manages to make the characters, both real and imaginary, consistently captivating. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries' fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/07.]--Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L.[Page 87]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Russell's enjoyable latest historical is told in the exuberant, posthumous voice (yes, it's narrated from the afterlife) of Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cedar Glen, a town near Cleveland, Ohio. After the influenza epidemic of 1919 strikes down Agnes's family, a childless and unmarried Agnes settles the family estate, acquires financial independence and adopts an affable dachshund named Rosie. Accompanied by Rosie, Agnes travels to Cairo during the Cairo Peace Conference, where she befriends Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia among other historical heavy hitters. She also falls in love with the charismatic Karl Weilbacher, a German spy whose interest in Agnes may have less to do with romance than Agnes will allow herself to believe. Agnes's travelogues, while marvelously detailed, distract from the increasingly tense romantic play between Agnes and Karl. When a more worldly-wise Agnes returns home, her life--first as an investor wrecked by the Depression and then a librarian until her death in 1957--remains low-keyed. Though the bizarre, whimsical ending doesn't quite gel, Russell (The Sparrow ; A Thread of Grace ) has created an instantly likable heroine whose unlikely adventures will keep readers hooked to the end. (Mar.)[Page 40]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.