Review: Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2008. 249 pp. $15
Agnes Shanklin, a forty-year-old Ohio schoolteacher, knows she’s ugly, drab, incompetent, ungrateful, unworthy, and just about un-everything else. How does she know this? Why, her sainted mother, may she rest in peace, told her so every day, and Mumma’s voice still resounds in Agnes’s head every time the still-dutiful daughter dares call a thought her own.
But it’s 1921, and the influenza pandemic that has killed even more people than the First World War has set Agnes free. Her entire family has died, including Mumma, which results in a financial windfall–three estates to inherit–but, most important, nothing to stop Agnes from learning what life can be like when nobody’s degrading her. On a whim–a new experience in itself–she shops in the fanciest department store in town and manages to hold off the maternal yammer in her ear while she acquires a bob haircut and an up-to-the-minute wardrobe. Thus equipped, she decides to expand her horizons and take a vacation, another first. Her destination is Cairo, and her only companion will be her dachshund, Rosie.
Egypt might seem an unusual destination for Agnes, but she recalls, with excitement, a lecture she attended about Lawrence of Arabia. And it’s nothing short of wonderful that when she reaches Cairo, she meets the man himself–and Winston Churchill, Britain’s minister for the colonies, and Gertrude Bell, the famous Arabist and traveler in the Middle East. They’re in Cairo to negotiate an agreement ancillary to the Treaty of Versailles that will redraw the map as we essentially know it today. Agnes, at first abashed to be in such august company, gradually scrapes her confidence together and contributes to dinner-table conversation about colonial politics, crossing swords with Churchill and Bell.
That description illustrates the charm with which Russell has imbued Dreamers of the Day. In the abstract, it seems completely implausible that an Ohio schoolteacher could crash a diplomatic party, let alone be welcomed into its midst, yet Russell makes that work. There seems no reason to doubt that when their paths cross at the best hotel in town, Agnes will be swept up into dinner parties and social excursions. What’s more, I love Russell’s characterizations of the diplomats, especially that of Lawrence, who comes across as more sensitive and thoughtful by half than anyone else there, and believably so. Russell says she’s let the famous characters speak the words they wrote or were ascribed to them in multiple sources, and I believe that too.
The best historical novelists render the period through their characters’ internal lives so that you can practically breathe the atmosphere on the page. So it is here, from the second paragraph:
You must try to feel the hope and amazement of those years. Anything seemed possible–the end of ignorance, the end of disease, the end of poverty. Physics and chemistry, medicine and engineering were breaking through old boundaries. In the cities, skyscrapers shredded clouds. Trucks and automobiles were crowding out horse-drawn cabs and drays in the boulevards below. The pavement was clean: no stinking piles of dung, no buzz of flies.
However, this viewpoint also demonstrates the chief weakness of Dreamers of the Day. The sense emerges both between the lines and in them that Agnes realizes what the future will hold, a dramatic irony that needs no emphasis, since the reader already knows that the diplomats failed utterly to create peace in the Middle East. Her uninformed skepticism, especially balanced against the more optimistic views of Bell and Lawrence, sounds forced and artificial. The “hope and amazement of those years” might have served Russell better in Agnes’s mouth.
Russell compensates somewhat by letting Agnes fall in love with a man who may or may not be a German spy. Karl offers a political counterpoint to the Brits, but he also shows her attention and kindness and even tells her forthrightly that Mumma doesn’t sound very nice at all. I like this part and wish there had been more of it, for Dreamers of the Day works best when the politics share the narrative rather than overwhelm it.
That’s why I don’t understand the last chapter, which drops into magical realism, a mode I dislike and one at odds with the book. It’s there, I think, to allow Agnes to soapbox about subsequent politics–another no-no–when the real story ends in Cairo.
Not only that, but as someone who admires Russell’s skill and diligence, I’m startled that she cuts corners about Gallipoli, Churchill’s great failure. I like her take that Churchill was a such a narcissist, he’d never miss a chance to rehash the campaign and exonerate himself. But the scene relies on so many historical inaccuracies, he sounds like an ignorant fool, and that’s plain wrong.
So I think that, unlike Doc, which I reviewed in these pages and liked very much, Russell gets ahead of herself in Dreamers of the Day; despite some fun bits, it doesn’t quite come together.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.