Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sound Advice

Dreamers of the Day
by Mary Doria Russell

I am a huge Mary Doria Russell fan, and eagerly anticipated this book. It is an engaging read and an effective way to sneak in some world history lessons about the period immediately following World War I (a time that I must admit I know very little about). Having said that, I do not think this is Russell's best work. If you have never read her, you MUST read The Sparrow, one of my all time favorite books. In that one, and in its sequel Children of God, Russell manages to create these delightful communities of characters that the reader gets really invested in. I did not find that with Dreamers of the Day - frankly I thought Agnes was kind of mealy-mouthed, and I got tired of her yippy little dog.

Russell uses real historical figures as the auxiliary characters in this story - Winston Churchill, Lady Gertrude Bell, and Colonel T.E. Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Uncrowned King of Arabia." I have always heard of this legendary person, but did not know his role in the creation of the modern Middle East, including what is now the nation of Iraq. He was one of the more charismatic characters of the story, as I assume he was in real life.

The premise of the book is that Agnes Shanklin, a spinster lady who has lost her whole family in the Great Influenza of 1920, treats herself to a vacation in Egypt. While there, she befriends all these influential people who are in Cairo for a conference (a conference which actually did happen) to figure out how to divide up the Middle East between the various colonial powers. Colonel Lawrence was the only one who actually had faith that the Arabs could rule themselves, and he advocated for that solution. For that reason, he was much beloved by the various people in the Middle East.

I definitely want to do more reading about this period of history, and Russell does a great job of weaving the narrative of what was happening on the world stage at the time into the conversations and monologues of the principal players. The book helps us to understand the roots of the conflicts that we are still coping with in the Middle East. Perhaps if Westerners had not been so condescending and patronizing to the people who would have to live with the results of their decisions, there would not be so much resentment and discontent among the people living there now.

The books ends with a pretty strong statement against the current war in Iraq, without specifically naming the conflict or any of the architects of it. I liked Agnes's next to last statement - the three pieces of advice she would give to us: 1) Read to children. 2) Vote. 3) Never buy anything from a man who is selling fear. That works for me.

Reverent Reader


At 6/25/08, 11:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Leslie--This sounds good, although, like you, I'm not sure she can ever top The Sparrow. (It's similar to how Owen Meany wrecked the rest of John Irving's body of work for me.) Several months ago I read a review of a non-fiction book about this historical period that sounded very interesting. It's on my list but I haven't read it's called Lawrence and Aaronsohn: T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.


At 6/25/08, 11:37 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

E - thanks for the tip, I definitely need to put that one on my list as well.

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