Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Review: Dreamers of the Day

I missed Mary Doria Russell's latest book when it came out in hardcover, but I decided to pick up the paperback of Dreamers of the Day for my airplane reading this past week. My reading of this book was timely, given my recent reviews of Paris 1919, The First World War, and Strategy, as it is set in America and the Middle East after World War I. In this story, Russell places a middle-aged spinster from Cleveland, Ohio in the midst of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and then the negotiations that established the troubled borders and nations that are fighting today, especially Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

I had several reactions to this book, some good, some not as good, so I'll start out by saying nice things (for my reviews of the author's other works, see here, here, and here). For instance, while I got into Russell's books because she wrote science fiction, her writing has been of such quality that I was quite willing to read others as they have come up, regardless of genre.

Dreamers of the Day continues Ms. Russell's fantastic ability to manipulate English prose. The book is shorter than some of her other works (249 pages or so, plus a "study section" in the back), but the reading experience is something else altogether. I read one review on Amazon that complained that "it felt longer." I took that rather as a virtue of the book, as Russell manages to weave her story along and take the reader many different places in the character's life and experience in very few pages. This is quite an achievement, and in sharp contrast to, say, The Historian, which is also a "literary" book and could not shut up until 676 pages were consumed.

What, then, is the story? Russell presents us with Agnes Shanklin, who is orphaned and loses all her family in the Spanish Flu that broke out in the last year of World War I. Agnes, whom Russell has narrating her own story, describes herself as not terribly attractive and very much under the spell of her lost "Mumma." The middle child and also the obedient one, Agnes never managed to please her mother when she was alive, so when her mother dies, she decides to take the opportunity to remake herself. If she doesn't break totally with her desire to please Mumma, she does at least strike out for independence and doing things she wants to do, like remaking her wardrobe and traveling to the Middle East, where her more attractive and vivacious sister spent some time as a missionary.

And here's where I started squirming in my seat. How does Agnes start hanging out with the leading lights of the day--T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Gertrude Bell? Because of her sister the missionary. That might warrant a polite, "Nice to meet you" from these upper-crust types, but would one expect that this fish-out-of-water American lady would be invited into their discussions about the Middle East? That was a bit of a stretch for me. Still, to Russell's credit, she doesn't put Agnes in the Cairo Peace Conference or making huge changes to world history. She does, instead, have Agnes going along to some of the formal dinners or painting excursions (with Churchill) or public speeches or camel rides (with Churchill and Lawrence). She exchanges petty insults with Gertrude Bell, gossips with Churchill's bodyguard, and has a relationship with a German spy. Nothing too over the top, but enough to put Agnes "in the middle of the action," so to speak. Agnes is a perfect "innocent eye" to view the personalities who shaped the modern Middle East.

One thing Russell does early on in the book is compare the run-up to World War I to the U.S. entry into the war in Iraq, with lines like "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." Or: "The cost is all out of proportion to whatever we can expect to reap from that wilderness [Iraq]." Or: "The relentless concealment! The British public were tricked into this adventure in Mesopotamia by a steady withholding of information." Or: "Eugene Debs spoke truth to power!"

At this last comment, I thought I was in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. If I'm to believe my internet research, this phrase didn't enter the public discourse until 1955, making it an anachronism. And even if that term is older--I'm more than suspicious of "facts" I find in cyberspace--it jarred me out of my reading experience and exclaim, "Oh, come on!" The attitudes in the book are politically liberal: I get it. Sometimes I just don't like to be hit over the head with it.

From what I've read and seen depicted about Churchill and Lawrence, they seemed to be acting "in character." Gertrude Bell was an unknown figure to me, but portrayed believably, as Russell always does well. Russell overlooks how much trouble Churchill and her long-time hero Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") caused for the modern world by spreading the doctrine of "asymmetrical warfare." B. H. Liddell Hart noted this problem in Strategy--and Hart was actually friends with Lawrence. One might admire his bravery and (perhaps) his idealism in trying to imbue the Arabs with a sense of nationalism and independence, but the West has reaped the whirlwind he sowed. The path India took toward dominion status and nationhood was more homegrown and more honorable than the paths taken in the Middle East, and as far as I know the Indians and Pakistanis didn't seize any profit-making businesses built by the West when they became independent. That is a political disagreement on my part, not necessarily within the scope of the book, but one that bugged me nonetheless.

As to the story of Agnes herself, she is by turns ignorant, standoffish, charming, obedient, independent, direct, gullible, and finally, hopeful. The book ends on a note of reflection and magical realism (I leave that for the reader to discover), but also inconclusiveness. Russell wants to make some points about the times Agnes lived through and their impacts on the modern Middle East, and I'd say she makes them. Does the book result in a happy ending for Agnes? I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Dreamers of the Day is worth reading, even if it doesn't satisfy as much as Ms. Russell's books. I continue to look forward to her future efforts.

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