Authors keep doing innovative things to surprise and delight. Not long ago, I found Sherlock Holmes inserted as a character in Laurie R. King’s books. Now it is Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day that includes T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Winston Churchill as living, breathing characters. Her novels have won national and international literary awards.
The main character, shy, plain Agnes Shanklin of Cleveland, OH, endures an ordinary existence as the sister of a pretty sibling, crushed under the thumb of an opinionated and critical mother. Two world events change her life. The Great War (World War I) begins, and millions die in battle, followed by the Spanish flu epidemic, that took millions more. One by one, Agnes loses each member of her family.
She spends years settling her family’s affairs and closing up their homes. She is left with enough money to give up her teaching job and contemplate her future.
By 1921 she is set for adventure. You could not understand Agnes without being aware of the negative mother, who calls attention to her daughter’s physical defects (including a wandering eye), and constantly erodes her self-confidence. Mumma’s mean comments, expressed in italics throughout the book, resound long after Mumma is gone. (I find you flat-chested, hipless, hopeless…) In light of this, we can appreciate Agnes’ choice of a malformed dachshund puppy with a twisted tail. Rosie becomes Agnes’ beloved companion who shares in all that is ahead of her.
Because she has dreamt of Egypt since her beloved sister was a missionary there, Agnes books a passage just as the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference — at which the modern Middle East was created — gets under way. Who should greet her upon arrival at her hotel but T.E. Lawrence, who had known and admired her missionary sister.
What is fascinating is that Russell researched biographies, film, and other accounts of the real people in her novel. Lawrence was handsome, but short, giggled often, and disappeared without a word when parting company. But he becomes a friend to Agnes. Equally consistent with our knowledge of Churchill is Russell’s portrayal of him as he, too, befriends Agnes, inviting her to join his entourage to see the pyramids. Although the pyramids had to wait for a different day, since the trip turned out to be stops for Winston to paint. When something caught his fancy, he would impulsively shout and the whole group, including his wife Clementine, servants, driver and bodyguard, would stop, climb out of the auto and wait while he set up his easel and painted, brush in one hand and cigar in the other.
Agnes takes it all in, the Egyptian Museum, the pyramids, the crowds, begging children, donkeys, dust and noise, feeling for the first time in her life the freedom to be herself. Before long a handsome gentleman provides romantic interest. How can she resist? He is attracted to her beloved little dachshund, which reminds him of the one he had as a child. More travels ahead, to Jerusalem, Palestine, and Luxor.
This book is written with an easy flow of prose, paired with perfect dialogue from a variety of nationalities and points of view. I had a hard time putting it down, and was sorry when it ended. A great read and I recommend it highly.