Dreamers of the Day

By MARY DORIA RUSSELL

Mary Doria Russell’s fiction has always dealt with power and the search for elusive lands as a means to further it. In her novels The Sparrow and Children of God, a band of Jesuits in the future colonize a distant planet. In Dreamers of the Day, Russell shifts her gaze to the Middle East, specifically to the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where a group of high-profile Europeans met to decide the fate of the region in the aftermath of the First World War. Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old spinster whose staid schoolteacher’s life is transformed by a sudden inheritance of riches, sets sail for Egypt just in time to mingle with the illustrious company gathered in Cairo: Winston Churchill, a hoity-toity colonial secretary; Gertrude Bell, the redoubtable British writer credited with drawing up the borders of Mesopotamia; and the swashbuckling, locally beloved T. E. Lawrence. Agnes’s sojourn in the company of these power brokers is richly conjured by the author, drawing on meticulous research. You may not agree with her political message, but it is impossible to ignore her conviction, born of a deep humanity, that geopolitics does not sit well with hubris. As America grapples with the fruits of its actions in Iraq, Dreamers of the Day is a timely reminder of that classic dictum: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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