Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day

3.5 25
by Mary Doria Russell
     
 

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With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines.

Agnes Shanklin, a forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio, has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and

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Overview

With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines.

Agnes Shanklin, a forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio, has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference convenes, she is freed for the first time from her mother’s withering influence and finds herself being wooed by a handsome, mysterious German. At the same time, Agnes–with her plainspoken American opinions–is drawn into the company of Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell, who will, in the space of a few days, redraw the world map to create the modern Middle East. As they change history, Agnes too will find her own life transformed forever.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…a stirring story of personal awakening set against the background of a crucial moment of modern history…In this rewarding blend of personal and historical events, Russell has produced a novel bound to please a broad range of readers. From her vantage point in the afterlife, Agnes claims that "observing human history has turned out to be a terrible exercise in monotony," but for those of us still on this side, such tales as this make it fascinating.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Russell's (A Thread of Grace) fourth novel, her second work of historical fiction, focuses on the years immediately following World War I. When narrator Agnes Shanklin, an Ohio schoolteacher, finds herself at 40 the sole surviving member of her family, she decides to take a trip to Egypt and the Middle East, where her beloved missionary sister once lived and worked. There, she is thrilled to be swept up into the company of several renowned statesmen, diplomats, and spies attending the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. But she is disconcerted to learn that a man with whom she's become romantically involved may be using her to obtain inside political information. Listening for the first time to her own inner needs and wants, Agnes grows into an independent and far-thinking woman. Russell labors to provide insight into how the fate of the Middle East, including the entities of Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan, was drawn up at the time. While this aspect of the novel can sometimes be hard-going, she manages to make the characters, both real and imaginary, consistently captivating. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries' fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/07.]
—Maureen Neville

Kirkus Reviews
A remarkably vivid account of a woman's accidental witness to history as she encounters Churchill and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, where in 1921 they redrew the map of the Middle East. Russell (Children of God, 1998, etc.) unites a dog-toting spinster touring the Holy Lands with a small but significant dot on history's timeline, creating an analysis of our current troubles in Iraq. Agnes Shanklin, long dead and narrating from a disappointingly dull afterlife, lived an unremarkable existence until her late 30s, when the great influenza epidemic killed her mother and siblings. Left alone with an inheritance, Agnes makes an uncharacteristically impulsive decision: She books a tour to Egypt and the Holy Lands. With newly bobbed hair and gauzy dropped-waist dresses, former ugly duckling Agnes leaves America a fashionable woman of means. On her first day in Cairo, she and her dachshund Rosie are banned from their hotel but are saved by a chance meeting with T.E. Lawrence and redirected to the more dog-friendly Continental. There she meets Karl Weilbacher, a German-Jewish spy who falls for Rosie and charms Agnes. Agnes spends her holiday in two camps: She's swept away on often dangerous excursions by Lawrence, Churchill and Gertrude Bell, and she engages in quiet, intelligent strolls with Karl the spy, eager to hear about Agnes's new friends. Agnes is no fool. She knows Karl has more than a passing interest in the goings on at the conference, but she's also a realist, and she sees no need to protect the interests of British imperialists. Anyway, this may be her last chance for love. At the end of the conference, arbitrary lines are drawn to create Iraq; Palestine is soon to be a Jewish homeland; andKarl rather presciently observes that "black seeds" are being sown. Russell triumphs on many levels: She crafts a solid interpretation of the event, creates in Agnes an engaging narrator and, in no small sense, offers a fine piece of travel writing as we follow Agnes down the Nile. An inspired fictional study of political folly. Agent: Jane Dystel/Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780345485557
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/16/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
336,808
Product dimensions:
8.06(w) x 5.08(h) x 0.61(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I suppose i ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: my little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.

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.

In 1913, America had a professor-president in the White House—a man of intelligence and principle, elected to clean up the corruption that had flourished in the muck of politics for so long. Public health and public schools were beating back the darkness in slums and settlements. The poor were lifted up and the proud brought down as Progressives reined in the power of Big Money.

In the homes of the middle class, our lives ticked along like clocks, well regulated and precise. We had electric lights, electric toasters, electric fans. On Sundays, there were newspaper advertisements for vacuum cleaners, wringer-washers, radios, and automobiles. Our bathrooms were clean, modern, and indoors. We believed that good nutrition and good moral hygiene would make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. We had every reason to think that tomorrow would be better than today. And the day after that? Better yet!

The Great War and the Great Influenza fell on our placid world almost without warning.

Imagine: around the world, millions and millions and millions vital and alive one day, slack-jawed dead the next. Imagine people dying in such numbers that they had to be buried in mass graves dug with steam shovels—dying not of some ancient plague or in some faraway land, but dying here and now, right in front of you. Imagine knowing that nothing could ensure your survival. Imagine that you know this not in theory, not from reading about it in books, but from how it feels to lift your own foot high and step wide over a corpse.

What would you do?

I’ll tell you what a lot of us did. We boozed and screwed like there was no tomorrow. We shed encumbrances and avoided entanglements.We were tough cookies, slim customers, swell guys, real dolls. We made our own fun and our own gin, drinking lakes of the stuff, drinking until we could Charleston on the graves. Life is for the living! Pooh, pooh, skiddoo! Drink up—the night is young!

“I don’t want children,” said one celebrated writer after an abortion. “We’d have nothing in common. Children don’t drink.”

Does such callousness shock you? But I suppose it does. You see, by that time the plain stale fact of mortality had become so commonplace, so tedious . . . Well, mourning simply went out of style.

And just between you and me? Even if you find yourself among illustrious souls, you can get awfully tired of the dead.

Let me count my own. Lillian and Douglas, and their two dear boys. Uncle John. And Mumma, of course. Six. No, wait! Seven. My brother, Ernest, was the first.

I last saw Ernest in September of 1918. Slim in khaki, a mustachioed captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, my brother waved from the window of a train packed three boys to every double seat. They were headed for Newport News, where the battalion would ship out for Europe.

By the time Ernest left for the coast, five million European soldiers had already disappeared into “the sausage machine.” That’s what their commanders called the Great War. To understand why, you must call to mind some modern war. Think of the casualties endured in a year’s time, or five years, or ten. Now imagine sixty thousand men killed in a single day of combat: meat fed to the guns. Imagine four years like that.

America stared, aghast and uncomprehending, while the Old World gorged on its young and smashed its civilization to pieces for reasons no one was able to explain. From the start, there was some war sentiment in America, but it was largely confined to those who knew there was money to be made selling weapons, uniforms, steel, and ships, should America join the fight.

Reelected, barely, on a peace platform, our professor-president remained steadfast even when he was called a coward for refusing to involve us in the madness of foreigners. Then, eight weeks after Woodrow Wilson’s second inaugural, a document was “captured” and made public. In it, the German foreign minister urged the Mexican government to join Germany in a war against the United States and, in so doing, to reclaim the lost lands of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

Call me cynical. I always thought that document was a fraud. And even if it was genuine, why send our boys to France if the threat was on our southern border?

Of course, I was just a schoolteacher—a woman without a vote of my own, or even a husband to persuade. The men all said that document changed everything. Certainly Mr. Wilson believed it did. When he turned the ship of state toward Europe, the nation cheered and felt gratified to have exciting newspaper stories to talk about at breakfast. Those of us who saw no need for war found the enthusiasm of our fellow citizens bewildering. I read all the papers, frantic to understand why this was happening to my country and the world. To me, Mr. Wilson’s conversion was so shocking, it seemed Saint Paul had renounced Christ to become Saul once more. But there you are: even if the reason for going to war was a shameless hoax, the war itself was real and, by God, America was in it!

In fact, Mr. Wilson informed the nation, the Almighty Himself no longer wanted America to stand aloof from the slaughter in the Old World. “America,” the president declared, “was born to exemplify devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”

By turning the other cheek? I wondered. Silly woman . . .

No, exemplifying righteousness required America to fight a war to end all wars, a war so brutal and ruthless that war would never be waged again. Mr. Wilson assured us that this crusade was God’s will and God’s work.

If Abraham Lincoln had erred in allowing the press to criticize the government during our Civil War, Woodrow Wilson vowed, “I won’t repeat his mistakes.” The president didn’t repeal the First Amendment; he had, after all, recently sworn to uphold the Constitution. The press could print what it liked, of course, but the post office didn’t have to deliver it. The Wilson administration ordered the confiscation of anything unpatriotic, which is to say anything critical of his administration. Total war demanded totalitarian power, Mr. Wilson told a compliant Congress. “There are citizens of the United States,” the president thundered, “who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed.”

Anyone who protested, or even voiced reluctance, was called a traitor. Mr. Eugene Debs was sentenced to decades in prison. His crime? He said that a war abroad did not excuse tyranny at home.

Mexico was all but forgotten in the excitement.

That’s why, by the summer of 1918, a million American men had been mobilized to fight—from career officers like my brother, Ernest, to draftees straight off the farm. Ernest’s train left Cleveland carrying nearly 250 soldiers, including a boy from Wooster who seemed to have a dreadful cold. When the troops arrived on the Virginia coast two days later, more than 120 of the soldiers already had the flu. Sixty others were ill within a day or two.

In Ernest’s last letter home, he confessed that he was afraid he’d miss the war. He was so eager to embark! I doubt he mentioned his headache to anyone else. The next letter we received was from a friend of his. Ernest had been buried at sea before the boat was halfway to France. Later we learned that most of his battalion had sickened. Many died while standing on a French dock, awaiting orders in a chilly autumn rain.

In October, the military finally canceled leave and liberty, but it was too late to make a difference. Railways had distributed the influenza with the same swift efficiency that carried coal, wheat, and livestock to and from every corner of the continent. Within weeks, the flu was everywhere.

People spread the disease before they knew they had it, got sicker, brought it home, and died. Fiancées, parents, brothers, and sisters: kissed good-bye at train stations. Ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers, doctors, nurses: working until they died on their feet. Trolley conductors, shopkeepers. Teachers.

Waves of influenza broke across the nation and all the while, the war ground on in Europe. Cleveland sent forty-one thousand boys “over there.” One of my students came to see me before he left—a boy named for the great Italian patriot Garibaldi. Gary, we called him at school. He was a good student. Arithmetic was his best subject, as I recall. Off he went with the Fifth Regiment of the Ohio National Guard, to revenge bleeding Belgium and rescue poor brave France, to make the world safe for democracy and kill Huns for Mr. Wilson.

Gary visited me again after he got home, in 1919. “You were wrong, Miss Shanklin. The Grim Reaper isn’t a metaphor,” he told me. “The Reaper’s real. I saw him. We went over the top and machine guns mowed us down, like a scythe through weeds. Row after row of us. You can’t imagine, miss.”

No, not that, but I had seen men struck down in the streets of Cleveland. They’d leave for the office in the morning feeling fine. During the day, they’d complain of being hot and achy. By evening, waiting on the corner for a streetcar, they’d fall to the pavement, already dead or near to it. Gary soon became one of them. Poor boy. He had just married his sweetheart and found a job as a bank teller. He left work feeling woozy and never made it home for supper.

Even then, before the worst of it, I wanted to escape from the sadness. I was older than the lost generation of the Roaring Twenties. I began the decade too shy to dance, too homely to imagine myself of interest even to a maimed veteran, too timid to break the Prohibition laws and risk blindness drinking bathtub gin. But in the end? I was not so very different. I, too, yearned for new sights, new sounds, new people—and, yes: a new me. I wanted to believe again in peace, and progress, and prosperity.

Prosperity, at least, I would have and this one certainty: of all my natal family, I would be the last to die. My brief obituary would be written by a bored young newspaperman in 1957: “Agnes Shanklin, heiress, dead at 76, after a long illness.”

That’s what they called cancer then. “A long illness.” And don’t be fooled by that fancy word “heiress.” No single estate was all that much, but taken together and added to $1,000 of soldier’s insurance from Ernest, they totaled just enough to afford me a careful independence.

Frugality I had learned at my mother’s knee. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do.” That was Mumma’s motto, especially after the bankruptcy and Papa’s death.

In the beginning, I believe, my parents anticipated something close to the ideal marriage of the nineteenth century. They met and married late, both nearly thirty and too mature for silly romantic illusions about love. When they pledged their troth in the sight of God, they did so in the hope that theirs would be a union of souls. They understood that this would demand an equal sacrifice of personal interests. Papa would lose his place in the home; Mumma, her place in the world. He would strive for material sustenance and guard the family from the corruption of the marketplace. In return for cooking and needlework, the bearing and raising of children, she would receive shelter, food, and a clothing allowance.

Such marriages always ran the risk of becoming cold but practical business partnerships. In the case of my parents, mutual admiration rested upon an economic arrangement that seemed to suit them both. Mumma was a fine seamstress, Papa a mechanical engineer. You might not think they’d have had much in common, apart from their children, but together they reasoned out a design for a sewing machine foot that would make cording easy and automatic. In the tenth year of their marriage, walking home from church one Sunday, they hatched a plan. They would take all their savings and start a factory right in Cedar Glen, just east of Cleveland. The business could provide good, honest work for the sons of slaves who’d come north on the Underground Railway. Those men would demonstrate that Negroes were capable of skilled labor, and the business would benefit by undercutting the competition on wages.

Papa’s probity and Mumma’s piety were well known in Cedar Glen. Their good character convinced several members of their congregation that they could do well by doing good, and they agreed to invest in the venture. Papa took the idea to a banker, who steered him toward a partner said to be a person of energy and vision.

To our family’s misfortune, Papa was an honest man in a time when business was increasingly often conducted between strangers who recognized no good or god excepting only Profit. In Washington and Columbus, politicians wearing masks of unctuous respectability legislated mightily to outlaw private sin and enforce private virtue, all the while accepting money to overlook the public crimes of industrialists and financiers who made incalculable fortunes by exploiting workers and swindling investors. In that climate, Papa’s trustworthiness was the very hallmark of a “patsy.” He built the factory; his partner and the banker disappeared with the money.

For Papa, it was a matter of honor that he keep his employees working and make his creditors whole. That determination left hardly any time or money for his family. Mumma soon found it difficult to hide our circumstances from public view, but Papa steadfastly refused help from her brother, a bachelor attorney with money to spare.

“Foolish pride,” Mumma called that. “How am I to run a proper household with what you bring home?”

“Others are worse off,” Papa said, time and again. “We shall manage without charity.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mumma would mutter, and the household would go very quiet, unspoken accusations loud in our minds.

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