Dreamers of the Day share button
Mary Doria Russell
Format Paperback
Dimensions 8.06 (w) x 5.08 (h) x 0.61 (d)
Pages 288
Publisher Random House Publishing Group
Publication Date December 2008
ISBN 9780345485557
Book ISBN 10 0345485556
About Book
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.


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

The Barnes & Noble Review

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. --Vikram Johri