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Dreamers of the Day: A Novel Hardcover – March 11, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Russell's enjoyable latest historical is told in the exuberant, posthumous voice (yes, it's narrated from the afterlife) of Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cedar Glen, a town near Cleveland, Ohio. After the influenza epidemic of 1919 strikes down Agnes's family, a childless and unmarried Agnes settles the family estate, acquires financial independence and adopts an affable dachshund named Rosie. Accompanied by Rosie, Agnes travels to Cairo during the Cairo Peace Conference, where she befriends Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia among other historical heavy hitters. She also falls in love with the charismatic Karl Weilbacher, a German spy whose interest in Agnes may have less to do with romance than Agnes will allow herself to believe. Agnes's travelogues, while marvelously detailed, distract from the increasingly tense romantic play between Agnes and Karl. When a more worldly-wise Agnes returns home, her life—first as an investor wrecked by the Depression and then a librarian until her death in 1957—remains low-keyed. Though the bizarre, whimsical ending doesn't quite gel, Russell (The Sparrow; A Thread of Grace) has created an instantly likable heroine whose unlikely adventures will keep readers hooked to the end. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
On the heels of a family tragedy precipitated by the influenza epidemic of 1919, middle-aged spinster schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin inherits enough money to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Traveling to Egypt, she settles in at the Semiramis Hotel, where she meets and becomes involved with a number of members of the Cairo Peace Conference, including T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell. As these luminaries begin to carve up the Middle East, the unassuming Agnes wins the confidence of the conference attendees and attracts the attention of a dashing German spy. Narrated by Agnes from beyond the grave—a twist that is not revealed until the end of the book—this atmospheric entrée into a bygone time and place provides a first-person peek into the international political machinations that forged the contemporary Arab world. A natural for book-club discussions. --Margaret Flanagan
Top customer reviews
I love Ms. Russell's writing, having first read her novels The Sparrow and Children of God. These are amazing books, so I already knew she was a very good writer. While this one was not as absorbing to me as the other two of hers I’ve read, it was a pleasure to take this fascinating journey into the past.
Dreamers of the Day is a first-person narrative, and I have always enjoyed books written from that perspective. The protagonist of this story, Agnes, is so likable, it made this a quick read--although it's not a long novel anyway.
I read a number of reviews before I ordered this book, some of which said that the story (because of the people with whom Agnes becomes acquainted, including Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and Lawrence of Arabia) is far-fetched. I can see their point, but it made no difference to me. It's a novel, and to me, a welcome fantasy. At the same time, I learned a great deal about the time and place. It's not heavy on detail and facts, but it was enough to pique my interest. I'd never imagined myself reading a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, but I ordered one immediately after finishing this book.
I love this kind of novel told by an observant, plain spoken woman who thinks about the future, the movers & shakers on the world stage, & that "Life" has passed her by. To escape her mother's bitterness, Agnes studies to become a teacher, until 1918 when the Great Influenza takes her down. Afterwards she receives notice that her brother died of it at sea on his way to The Great War, & then her Mumma succumbs, as too her lawyer brother, Uncle John, & finally her beloved sister, Lillian, & her missionary husband & sons... all gone.
During her years of recovery, Agnes must live in a furniture & house rich/cash strapped condition as she sorts out the innards to 3 family homes & awaits probation of the estates, all the time the dachshund runt she adopted insists on being taken for walks... thus saving her life.
On the day Agnes becomes "an heiress" she decides to carpe diem & books passage for Egypt, all the while being chided & encouraged by the shades of her family who speak in their distinct voices to this new orphan heading toward 40.
Her first adventure is driving her uncle's out-moded electric motor car to a Cleveland department store where she intends to buy only $60 worth of ready-made modest clothes & "...a pair of stout shoes." Under the influence of a sassy clerk, Agnes is enticed into discarding her Gibson era attire to be remade in all that fabulous finery of a post-Great War Flapper.
Meanwhile her wiggly little friend, true to her breeding, steals every scene she's in, all the way to Egypt, playing Cupid in Cairo & entwining her with the fabled Lawrence of Arabia, working the Middle East Conference where the land will be carved up into the countries we know today, & a German Gent who watches over woman & dog.
Months later, back home in Ohio, she gets caught up in the rest of the Roaring 20s until that black Black Thursday when she sobers up to find that every last cent of her modest fortune is gone with the wind.
DREAMERS OF THE DAY has it all: history, adventure, clashes of cultures (my favorite subject!), daring men & lively women, & a keen sense of time & place.
P.S. To find out what happened at that other post-WWI conference when Europe got carved up, do read Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan, as too what it was like in Germany in the 30s: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson.
A great heroine and well written story, worth reading