Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. Random House, 2008. 272 pages.
One of the great delights in browsing library shelves or bookstores is to encounter a totally unfamiliar book which seems to promise, from the first touch of the fingertips on the cover, unexpected pleasures. Among women there is the old saying “You have to kiss a thousand frogs to find a prince.” Among bibliophiles the same statistic seems to apply: You have to pull a thousand dogs from the shelf to find one that barks, wags its tail, and runs to meet you.
Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day (Random House, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-1-4000-6471-7) is just such a dog of a book.
Such a description may sound insulting, but we can be sure that Russell would appreciate this comparison, for one of the characters in her novel — a main character, I might add — is Rosie, an intrepid dachshund who accompanies her mistress, Agnes Skanklin, on a series of grand adventures in the Middle East nearly a century ago.
Agnes is a 40-year-old unmarried schoolteacher from Ohio whose family has been wiped out by the Great War and the influenza epidemic of 1918 (Smoky Mountain News readers may be interested to know that on a hill above the campground in Sunburst is a small cemetery with the graves of children who apparently died during this epidemic). Tired of her life, filled with ennui, Agnes decides to set out on some adventures. In one of the books more humorous scenes, she allows herself to be refashioned by Mildred, a shop girl at Halle’s Department Store in Cleveland. With her new wardrobe and flapper haircut, Agnes then sets out to tour the Middle East, where her deceased sister and brother-in-law had worked before the Great War as missionaries and teachers.
Agnes arrives in Cairo just as the Peace Conference of 1918 has commenced. Here she meets such luminaries as Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Lady Gertrude Bell. Russell paints these characters with vivid colors, doing particular justice to Lawrence and Bell. She also shows us how the twentieth century evolved from decisions made at the various conferences held after World War I. In the Middle East, for example, the importance of oil brought great political pressures to bear on the region, pressures which Russell delineates for us through the conversations of Agnes with British luminaries and the fictitious German Jewish spy, Karl Weilbacher, with whom Agnes falls in love.
In addition to setting painlessly a background to today’s Middle East conflicts, Dreamers of the Day also explores other areas of our history. Russell accurately describes Woodrow Wilson’s wartime presidency as a sort of fascistic dictatorship. Later, the author writes accurately and well about the influenza epidemic of 1918, when more people around the world died of the flu than died on the battlefields of World War I. Through Agnes’s eyes, we realize the devastation of such an epidemic.
In addition to its historical depictions, Dreamers of the Day also gives us a woman with whom some 21st century women might identify. Agnes works first as a teacher, then inherits some money after the deaths of her relatives. She lives through the twenties on this sum, but then loses her small fortune to speculation and poor investments during the early years of the Depression. In mid-life she experiences a catharsis allowing her to find within herself a sense of adventure, even a sense of her own worth. She remodels herself from hairstyle to dresses, from outlook on the world to her lust for personal freedom, and makes of that renovation a nice job. She has spiritual battles with her deceased mother; she finds pain in love; she must learn to live great stretches of her life alone. She is vulnerable to pain — she grieves the passing of her family, for example, though without falling into bathos over that passing — and yet she is possessed of that midwestern spine which has carried many another Agnes through the tilt and whirl of life.
At the end of Dreamers of the Day, Agnes speaks to her readers from beyond the grave. Deceased, her soul has taken up residence again in Egypt, the land where she had so many adventures. Here she speaks with the likes of Ptolemy, Saint Francis, George McClellan (who intensely studied the Middle East, including Egypt, after the Civil War), and Napoleon. History and warfare, and the nature of humanity, are topics for their discussions. Most people, the dead Agnes concludes, “welcome war. Rare and precious as it is, peace seems boring and banal by comparison ... As war approaches, Mr. James wrote, nations experience a vague, religious exultation.”
Regarding many of the commitments made by the United States to the Middle East in the twenty-first century, Agnes tells us that “Naturally, people are resentful of ham-handed efforts to run their affairs for them, especially when they can plainly see a benefactor’s ulterior motives. And even when you mean well? Sometimes things are just none of your business.”
Dreamers of the Day is not a book for every reader. It’s not an action or suspense novel, though both occur. It’s not a novel about dogs and their owners, though Rosie the dachshund often takes center stage. Even the romance at the heart of the novel takes a passenger seat next to the book’s depiction of its driver, Agnes. In Dreamers of the Day Mary Doria Russell creates a delightful character, Agnes Shanklin, who is able to tell us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.