‘Dreamers’ a history lesson that bears repeating

Sunny Solomon Book Review(Jan. 27, 2023) — “Dreamers of the Day” is as bright and new as when it was published in March 2008.

Given the present state of the world, it may be even more fresh, which it is to me each time I re-read it.

After reading my advance review copy, handselling “Dreamers of the Day” at Clayton Books in 2008 was easy. When I moved to Reno, Mary Doria Russell’s novel moved with me. But I didn’t read it again until 2020, when COVID-sequestered at home, I went to my bookshelves.

At the bottom of Page 1 was Russell’s description of the Spanish Flu epidemic: “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 far-away land, but dying here and now, right in front of you.” How much timelier could it get?

Even with a page count of 255, I found enough history to look more closely at Middle East conflicts, which, after 9/11, also makes the story of the 1921 First Cairo Conference more relevant than ever. I let the novel rest again until 2022, when I suggested it for the Clayton book club’s January 2023 read.

“Dreamers of the Day” is the story of plain-Jane Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old Ohio school teacher, who, because of the Great Epidemic, becomes the sole survivor of the Shanklin family. Agnes is single, and, according to her mother, with little hope of marrying or being anything more than a teacher. But with the death of her widowed and overachieving, ever-critical mother, Agnes becomes heir to a small but comfortable “fortune.”

Coming of age

Historical novel? Middle East travel guide? I find “Dreamers” is Agnes’ coming of age story. She decides to travel (with Rosie, her Dachshund) to Egypt and the Holy Land, where her beloved sister’s family had lived as missionaries.

The fun begins upon Agnes’ arrival at a swish Cairo hotel, where she is denied admittance with Rosie. A hubbub of splendid proportions ensues, with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) coming to her rescue. Within minutes, Agnes is also in the company of Gertrude Bell and a young Winston Churchill.

By the time Agnes and Rosie find a more accommodating hotel, the reader can hardly put Russell’s book down. A handsome, Dachshund-loving German of questionable background enters the story (I did say it was a coming-of-age book), and, in no time, Agnes finds herself among ground-breaking world political leaders riding the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s demise – dividing up the Middle East with repercussions still felt today.

A more self-confident and worldly Agnes returns to Ohio, continuing her story well past her death in 1957. Remember her words: “My little story has become your history. You won’t understand your times until you understand mine.”

Don’t wait for the next pandemic; read it now.

Visit Sunny Solomon’s website at bookinwithsunny.com for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’