A schoolteacher steps into history
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.