Mary Doria Russell

"Dreamers of the Day"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew JUL 27, 2008)

"All men dream," Colonel Lawrence wrote, "but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

"It's the dreamers who do all the damage," I decided as we watched yet another reckless rush toward calamity. "I swear, the world would be better off without them!"

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, tells the story of an expedition to a completely alien place -- another world. It is a book that explores the mores of our humanity against the dramatic backdrop of another planet and of meeting the dominant race there. Dreamers of the Day at first glance would appear a drastically different work, and it is, but astonishing parallels exist.

Agnes Shanklin, the modest heroine of Dreamers of the Day, had a lot in common with Charlotte Vale, the famous cigarette-sharer in the classic 1942 film, Now Voyager. A description of Charlotte as "a mousy, dowdy and overweight, frustrated, mother-hating virginal spinster" pretty much sums up wallflower Agnes too. Well, Agnes didn't hate her strong-willed Mumma, but she was overshadowed by her. A no-longer-young Miss Shanklin mirrored Miss Vale in other ways. She underwent outward transformations via new hairstyle, makeup, and stylish clothes and inward ones energized by her need for a change of scenery. Charlotte took a cruise to gain strength in her new persona; Agnes got liberated from the oppressive grief of losing her family to the second round of the 1918 influenza pandemic by boarding a ship for the Middle East. Both late blooming voyagers found intimacy for the first time on these trips -- both with married men. Charlotte's story gets the curtain with her famous line, "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." Agnes can see the stars too at the end of Russell's new book, but her vantage point isn't mortal anymore.

As Agnes herself announces on page seven, her obituary was written in 1957 when she died at age 76 " 'after a long illness.' " She explains: "That's what they called cancer then." And later she expands on the cause, "Mumma was right about one thing: I did regret smoking, That's what killed me in the end." (Charlotte Vale and her beloved Jerry could have ended up in the same "after a long illness" boat...) But Agnes saves the particulars of her postmortem existence for the last chapter. To say more than that she moves among heady company -- Napoleon Bonaparte and Saint Francis to name two -- would spoil her fitting denouement.

It is after all, principally her life, not her death, that Dreamers of the Day recounts. Agnes reviews how her father's sewing machine business debts worked him to death and how her mother's managerial talents finally allowed their company to prosper after he was gone. But that left plain-Jane Agnes in charge of the house and her brother, Ernest, and golden-girl sister, Lillie. Ernest joined the army to get away from home, and the girls attended Oberlin where Mumma herded Agnes into getting a teaching certificate while Lillie married a professor who became a missionary to Jebail (in what is now Lebanon). The Great War killed her brother. Then her sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and mother were all among the estimated 675,000 American victims of the Spanish flu. Agnes, reeling from these tragedies, inherited a tidy sum which was "unlooked for, unwished for, but welcome all the same." She spent a couple dreary years settling various estate matters. Then, as many had to in those somber days, she resolved to begin life anew. So, in the year 1921 when she was forty years old, Agnes glammed up and booked passage to Egypt.

Lillie's husband had kept diaries during their years of mission in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Reading them awakened Agnes to the idea of traveling to see the ancient places they had. So she bundled up her beloved dachshund, Rosie, and made the steamship crossing. Once in Cairo, the hotel at which she had reservations made a fuss about her pet which led to fortuitously running into Colonel Lawrence, the renowned Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence had known her sister and brother-in-law. This gallant, surprisingly short man introduced Agnes to several movers and shakers, including Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill.

The bulk of the novel is a travelogue in which Agnes is courteously invited on various sightseeing outings with this group of British subjects who also "happen" to be participants in the fateful Cairo Conference. Their bumpy camel caravan ride to the pyramids rubs them raw as the hard wooden saddles and the rough gait of the plodding animals change an exotic treat into misery. They can't help stifled merriment when Churchill's beast's saddle hasn't been properly cinched and the portly gentleman (then age 47) slowly cants until he plops into the hot sand. On one of their day trips Churchill pokes a bear, so to speak, when he asks Agnes, "Whom did you vote for?" This produces a spirited argument which Winston (as he asks her to call him) later gleefully describes to Lawrence: " '...[she lectured] me on constitutional law and Arab suffrage!' "

Agnes is an everywoman bystander at a historical moment when British notables convened to decide how to carve up the large Middle East areas over which they had control. Churchill was Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air at the time of the Cairo Conference according to Agnes. It can be added that he was appointed Colonial Secretary in February of 1921 and he called the conference which convened in top secrecy the very next month. Churchill referred to the attendees as his "forty thieves," an appellation Agnes' recollections appropriate more censoriously. The conferees were to set the parameters for the British Mandate for Palestine and the British Mandate for Iraq. Historian Christoper Catherwood's book, Churchill's Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq, is among the works that the reader might wish to consult for further information. Russell's Acknowledgments cite that title as well as A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin, as sources. Catherwood writes that the 1921 Cairo Conference "created the map of the Middle East that we know today."

Agnes' memoir reflects many of Catherwood's conclusions. She writes that "there was no place for Gertrude Bell in the British plans. She had drawn the boundaries of Iraq and willed it into existence, but she would not be high commissioner. Percy Cox would rule." Miss Bell tells Agnes, " 'Winston is going to pull nearly all our ground troops out of Iraq. Trenchard will police the region from the air....Arnold Wilson thinks the plan is doomed. Without three hundred thousand British troops to keep order, he expects the Arabs to rise against any government with ties to us.' " Agnes asks Bell her own views. " 'It will cost less to fail from the air than from the ground. And fewer soldiers will die for the mistakes of politicians. God!...They are all so proud of the British art of muddling along -- as though ignorance and bad planning were a virtue!' "

Other European colonial nations naturally wanted information about the British Cairo Conference. Agnes meets a Jewish German named Karl Weilbacher. He is kind and attentive, and she fancies herself falling in love for the first time. Well, if not all-out love, then something in the vicinity. She wants him to initiate her into the intimacies of sex. Then she believes he has given her a child. But she also becomes increasingly aware that he may not be courting her for herself alone. He is, after all, married. And he asks gentle but persistent questions about what she hears from Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell.

Dreamers of the Day offers a uniquely personal perspective on a pivotal but currently often overlooked historical event. It unblinkingly reminds readers of the darkness of World War I and the pestilence that ravaged the world's population in tandem. Then it sends us on a regenerative adventure with our unassuming, not terribly brilliant Agnes, only to find defining history being made in the outskirts of her presence. Agnes Shanklin tells her story to posterity, asking -- and the reader will see why -- "one last thing? Try not to remember my name." Charlotte Vale and Jerry probably lived comfortably in their odd arrangement for the rest of their lives. Agnes' ability to brush elbows with the high and mighty or even to maintain a certain standard of living did not last, thanks to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Her once-again reduced circumstances, however, could never erase her one great adventure. And although Agnes did not fully understand the enormity of what the conference set into motion, in the afterlife she sees what is presently happening in the Middle East. A famous general tells her, " 'Americans have always looked at the Middle East and seen themselves in a mirror.' In his opinion, 'Anyone could have predicted how all this would turn out.' " Agnes says, "Well, I didn't," Although she "thought at the time that Winston and his Forty Thieves were a high-handed, arrogant bunch....I never imagined that decisions made by them would dictate history for a hundred years or more, or that Americans would get tangled up in it all."

Mary Doria Russell's Agnes is a very different character from her Father Emilio Sandoz of The Sparrow. As mentioned, the subject matter also appears worlds apart (literally). However, both novels chronicle the venture of human beings into a totally unfamiliar environment. Both consider the dangers of becoming entangled in the affairs of cultures not understood. Both echo with the competing strains of caution and optimism. Although Dreamers of the Day isn't as powerful and original as The Sparrow, it exudes its own special grace and message. One almost feels an embracing amber ambience, like the sepia of old photos, as Agnes reminisces. By all means, meet Agnes and the political luminaries who confide in her as they shape the world that we have inherited and will pass on.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Dreamers of the Day at Random House

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About the Author:

Mary Doria RussellMary Doria Russell was born in 1950 in the suburbs of Chicago. Her parents were both in the military. She studied cultural anthroplogy at the University fo Illionois; social anthroplogy at Northeastern in Boston and earned a Ph.D in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Russell taught human gross anatomy at Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s, but left teaching to write full time. Her novels have been awarded many awards. The Sparrow is the 1997 winner of the Authur C. Clark Prize for best novel, as as the British Science fiction Associations winner and the James Tiptree Prize. Children of God was a finalist for the 1999 Hugo Award and A Thread of Grace was a 2005 nominee for a Pulitzer Prize.

She lives in South Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland with her husband, Don. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014