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Awakening on the Nile
An Ohio schoolteacher meets up with history in the Middle East.

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 23, 2008

DREAMERS OF THE DAY

By Mary Doria Russell

Random House. 253 pp. $25

Mary Doria Russell began her writing career with two well-received science fiction novels, The Sparrow and Children of God, both about people making contact with extraterrestrials. Lately, though, she's turned to 20th-century history for examples of first encounters fraught with unintended consequences -- an acknowledgment, perhaps, that plenty of otherworldly events take place right here on earth. The Thread of Grace was an enthralling novel about Jewish refugees fighting to survive in Northern Italy during World War II. And now she's published Dreamers of the Day, a deceptively quiet novel about an old maid schoolteacher in Ohio in the early 20th century.

Even before we realize that this endearing narrator is speaking to us from beyond the grave, the tale she tells is oddly haunting -- and disturbingly relevant. "My little story has become your history," Agnes begins. "You won't really understand your times until you understand mine." Convincing evidence of that connection accumulates with every page.

Agnes is the only member of her family to survive the Great Influenza of 1919 -- portrayed here with intimate, sobering detail. She had always imagined she "would become the sort of maiden aunt who lived in a spare bedroom and helped in the raising of nieces and nephews," but after the loss of her family, she boldly decides to cast off her mousey personality, buy a set of expensive clothes and book passage to Egypt with her ugly dachshund in tow. "I wanted to . . . walk away from my own dull mediocrity," she explains. "I wanted to escape anyone and everything that had ever told me No." What follows is a stirring story of personal awakening set against the background of a crucial moment of modern history.

Agnes turns out to be a surprisingly charming tour guide; aware of her naivet¿ and inexperience in the world, she's full of gentle humor and colorful observations. Initially, she feels utterly lost in Cairo -- "a perfectly nauseating blend of sewage and citrus, burning tobacco and roasting meat, unwashed bodies and jasmine."

Because of her late sister's connections, though, she quickly falls in with the region's power brokers: Young Winston Churchill is the blustering colonial minister representing a depleted British government eager to cement its access to Middle East oil. Gertrude Bell, one of the most formidable women of the 20th century, is a scholar negotiating the borders of a new Iraq. And T.E. Lawrence is the dashing archaeologist and soldier who, having participated in the Arab rebellion against the Turks, is already passing into legend as Lawrence of Arabia. They're all vividly, sometimes comically brought to life here. Bell is severe with Agnes, but Lawrence, with his ambiguous sexuality and his boyish giggle, is gracious and kind. Churchill, always desperate for an audience, welcomes the American into their social circle and gives her a front-row seat to watch them "finish some business left undone at Versailles" -- creating the modern Middle East.

The challenge of a cast like this is balancing these real but larger-than-life characters with a fictional and decidedly modest narrator. Humble little Agnes could easily fall into the position of merely witnessing these important people shaping the lives of millions. But Russell rather daringly decides against that and, in fact, keeps the novel focused on Agnes, even when more historical exposition would have helped. (Quick: What tribes made up Trans-Jordan? Come to think of it, where was Trans-Jordan anyhow?)

Still, Dreamers of the Day is packed with illuminating glimpses of the origins of the current troubles in the Middle East. Russell draws cringe-inducing parallels between England's geopolitical meddling and our own. In a moment of exasperation with "Winston and his Forty Thieves," Lawrence tells Agnes, "The British public were tricked into this adventure in Mesopotamia by a steady withholding of information. . . . They have no idea how bloody and inefficient the occupation has been, or how many have been killed. The whole business is a disgrace." The novel's title comes from Lawrence's dark warning, in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), about "dangerous men" who insist on forcing their private daydreams on other people. Gertrude Bell, however, offers a more optimistic prediction: "When we have made Mesopotamia a model state," she claims, "there won't be an Arab in Syria or Palestine who won't want to be a part of it." Mission accomplished!

Russell packs this section of the novel with marvelous scenes: riding by camel with Churchill; watching Lawrence quell a riot in Gaza; listening to Bell's bitter laughter as she explains, "Happy and contented people don't make history." Agnes, of course, is not a maker of history, but the story of her transformation into a happy and contented person remains as engaging as anything going on around her during this calamitous period. She falls in love with a German spy, and their courtship becomes a test of her determination to cast off her mother's withering influence, to move beyond "decades of defining myself by what I would not do, what I did not want, what I could not be."

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. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr@washpost.com.

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