Dreamers of the Day is an astonishing book, its author Mary Doria Russell subtle and brilliant. The opening lines referring to “my little story” presage the writer’s humility but the greater lure is the amendment, “You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.”
History has no greater lure, or any greater purpose, than to offer an understanding of the times we live in, an explanation of how we got here. As Agnes Shanklin begins narrating her life she seems at first to have over-promised. Born in 1881 to a tyrannical mother and an over-worked father, Agnes is already in her early thirties before the historical events of the time impact her life.
She is a spinster schoolteacher when WWI begins (1914). By the time it ends in 1918 it’s not the war but the Great Influenza Pandemic that hits home, costing her the lives of her entire family (and 50 million others worldwide). It’s also what transforms her. The only one left, she inherits the money and property of her parents, brother, sister and brother-in-law. Nearly forty by the time she recovers from her grief and settles the estates, she makes one impetuous decision that launches her into midst of history makers.
Agnes decides to retrace the steps of beloved sister’s two-year stint as a missionary in the Middle East. She looks up her sister’s dear friend, T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, where, it just so happens Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and a notable assembly of European leaders are in the process of dividing the spoils of war, mapping out new Middle Eastern countries and deciding who should rule over them.
Though she is greatly distracted by her first love affair (with a German spy), Colonel Lawrence, a.k.a. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, invites Agnes to shadow the proceedings of the Cairo Peace Conference. And, this is where the subtly of Mary Doria Russell’s writing emerges.
While we cheer Agnes’ sexual blossoming, Churchill and company decide the fate of the Middle East – a Jewish state in Palestine, a unlikely unification of Muslim sects in the newly formed country of Iraq, French colonization of Syria and on and on. Agnes learns all this, as we do, in a tacit manner, the backdrop of her great Arabian adventure.
So, it isn’t the 39-year-old Agnes that slams the message home, nor is it the elderly librarian that she becomes. It’s only after she dies that she fulfills her promise – to help us understand our times by explaining hers.
“Drink from the Nile and it means you will return to it,” Agnes’ German lover teased her when she jumped into the river to save her dog. And after she died, she did return.
Agnes, in spiritual form, is once again in the company of great leaders – all of whom ‘ drank from the Nile’ during their lifetimes. Napoleon Bonaparte is there, along with U.S. Civil War General McClellan, St. Francis of Assisi and Ptolemy III. They watch the wars they presided over and witness the seeds they sowed for the next. Even Francis is perplexed about how to end the vicious circle. Agnes sees no evidence of her sister’s Christian God, but notes all the gods of war – Mars, Ares, Thor, Guan Yu, Sekhmut — hovering over history’s panorama of endless human conflict “with gleeful satisfaction”.
Agnes decides that it’s all the great men with grand dreamers that do all the damage. Francis points out all the good dreamers – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela, Gandhi. She turns to Colonel Lawrence to clarify:
“All men dream,” he wrote, “But not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
[T.E. Lawrence in 1919]