Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Dreamers of the Day: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

It all started when a friend was visiting and we were having a conversation about his passion, history. I had no knowledge or recollection of learning about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference and Ron was explaining the reason the Cairo Peace Conference had everything to do with the current conflict in the Middle East. That made no sense to me until Ron explained it. I mean, Paris and Syria? What possible connection could there be?

Embarrassingly, I have a rather poor grasp of important moments in history. I'm trying to repair that. My conversations with Ron and my reading of this book  helped immensely.
Thank you, Ron. And Thank you, Mary.

So, the day following Ron's teachable moment with me, I picked up a book that I had had on my side table, a book that was simply next. I can't adequately express my surprise to discover that Mary Doria Russell's book Dreamers of the Day: A Novel was actually set during and around the freaking 1921 Cairo Peace Conference! Life is freaky and serendipitous and I just about shouted in excitement as I discovered more and more about this book and how prepared  I was to read it.

Enter a completely average school teacher from Middle America 1920, Agnes, who, because of a minor inheritance, is able to take herself on a fabulous dream vacation to a place that is to become a major location of world events, a place where she will tangle with important people and major issues, a vacation that will embolden her and change her very identity, all in one hot season. Before the end of her first week in Cairo she will be supping with Winston Churchill and others who were the key players in these momentous weeks.

The location of this book, the beauty of Cairo and the Middle East, plays a character in this book. It turns out Mary Doria Russell has yet to step foot on Cairo soil, but the reader will be as surprised by this fact as I was because I felt completely transported. From the blistering heat and unpleasantness of air conditioner-free Egypt to dark, rich coffee houses and parties, boat rides down the Nile, to dusty pyramids, the reader will be utterly saturated in the sensory explosion of Egypt and the Holy Lands. Furthermore, Russell's understanding of and explanation of the issues of the time, just wow. She made it possible for me to understand why there is such fanaticism and fear in the Middle East in 2018.

Mary Doria Russell's love of research carries the reader forward into this intimate experience of the far-reaching concerns of the Cairo Peace Conference, which, you will learn, was a series of meetings in the spring of 1921 by Britain's higher ups to determine what was to be the policy for dealing with and managing the Middle East. In our online friendship, I asked her why she had chosen this particular time and place to set a book and she told me that she had found herself wondering, one day, how the Middle East had become such a stewing cauldron of complex conflict, characters, and culture. She was also fascinated that this historic moment in time had never been fully explored by any other author. Mary decided that this rich tapestry of historical things would be a wonderful setting for her next book.

One of my favorite things about historical fiction is when an author can take the reader on a journey with real people, during real events, giving us an insiders knowledge of the proceedings without losing the fiction part of historical fiction. Through conversation, musings, journeys, and asides, we gain a rich appreciation for this pregnant moment in time. In Dreamers of the Day, it is Agnes, the fearless narrator of the book, that is the fiction. From Agnes's vantage point of after-death, she is able to give us an insiders view as well as giving us the long perspective of looking back at the event, as well as looking back at her own empowerment as a woman of the time. Now, if that isn't brilliant writing, I don't know what is.

One of my favorite quotes from this book comes from a character that I have failed to mention thus far, a spy named Karl who becomes involved with Agnes. The two of them have lengthy and wonderful conversations as only those in the unexpectedly exotic romance of a foreign country that can have over coffee, tea, or more. Karl introduces Agnes to many ideas that challenges her and opens her mind and her life (for a woman from 1920s Ohio, this is an extremely rare opportunity!). 

At one point in an intimate conversation between Agnes and Karl, he delivers the line Frankly, I think the world will be a better place when science has swept all religion into the dustbin of history. What is religion but a shared belief in things that cannot be known? When we substitute concurrence for fact, fantasy quickly replaces knowledge. Why? Because knowledge is much more trouble to acquire!  Dear Agnes learns, not only of atheism and historical Christianity, but also of Islam from our intrepid, romantic, and learned cloak-and-dagger man.

Lady Gertrude Bell
While reading historical fiction of this caliber I love to research every single person, place, event, and thing that is real in history and I had a field day with this book. I especially enjoyed reading about TE Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia. I had no idea that this character that I think of as Peter O'Toole was such a pivotal part of the proceedings. Nor did I know about Lady Gertrude Bell, now one of my favorite political scientists, historians, cultural advisor, and feminists.

Although there was a section or two of the book that I found challenging to my attention span, I have to give this book a solid 7 stars and a recommendation to READ IT if you love historical fiction. Use it as a beginning place for your own research into the current conflict in Syria. I give this book a seven because I have read other books by Russell and I ADORE her writing and I thought this one was a lovely quiet book that clarified some complex issues. And remember to check out other books by Mary Doria Russell, one of THE best writers to come along in a very long time. She is the author of one of the top books on my top ten favorite books list, The Sparrow.

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