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Originally published Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM


A spinster awhirl in international intrigue in "Dreamers of the Day"

"Dreamers of the Day" by Mary Doria Russell Agnes, describes the life of a 40-year-old spinster schoolteacher, who arrives in Egypt just as the map of the Middle East — Jordan, Palestine, Iraq — is being redrawn at the Cairo Peace Conference.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Mary Doria Russell reads

from and autographs "Dreamers of the Day," 7 p.m. Thursday, Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636,


"Dreamers of the Day"

by Mary Doria Russell

Random House, 255 pp., $25.95

Agnes Shanklin might seem like a most unlikely novelistic heroine, emerging from a perpetually impoverished and downtrodden Midwestern background, with the facial appearance of "a young Eleanor Roosevelt" and the companionship of a misshapen dachshund. But don't count out Agnes yet. This fictional figure, the centerpiece of Mary Doria Russell's latest novel, is a woman of self-deprecating charm and earnest determination, and before 100 pages have passed, Russell has her hobnobbing with Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill in 1921 at Cairo.

Agnes, a 40-year-old spinster schoolteacher, arrives in Egypt just as the map of the Middle East — Jordan, Palestine, Iraq — is being redrawn at the Cairo Peace Conference, with consequences that are very much with us today. As Agnes, who narrates her story from the afterlife, shrewdly observes: "My little story has become your history. You won't really understand your times until you understand mine."

Her "little story" begins with an oppressive childhood in which her hopes and plans were stunted by a trio of mighty forces: her tyrannical mother, World War I and the influenza epidemic that wipes out her entire family. The death of her mother, and the arrival of a modest legacy, allows Agnes to realize a long-held dream to visit the Holy Land, where her missionary sister once lived and worked.

There Agnes is drawn into all sorts of intrigues: dragged off to accompany Churchill on a painting expedition to the Pyramids, squired about by the hugely charismatic Lawrence, insulted by British political adviser Gertrude Bell and nearly killed in an anti-Churchill demonstration by rock-throwing fanatics. She also is drawn into a romance with German-Jewish spy Karl Weilbacher, who (as she well knows) is eager to hear her inside accounts of the political developments. Agnes herself grows into a memorable character with wit, bravery and remarkably few delusions.

"Dreamers of the Day" also is a first-rate travel book, giving us the sights, sounds and aromas of Cairo ("sewage and citrus, burning tobacco and roasting meat, unwashed bodies and jasmine") and of the Nile ("the soil is so fertile that you could plant a pencil and harvest a book").

Touchingly, author Russell tells us in her post-novel acknowledgments that although Agnes' character is fictitious, her name is real: "The narrator's name honors the memory of a woman who taught freshman English students to diagram sentences at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Ill., is, in the 1960s. I know almost nothing about the real Agnes Shanklin, who died many years ago, but she laid the foundation for everything I have written since 1965." Every teacher may well dream of such a tribute.

Melinda Bargreen is the Seattle Times

classical music critic.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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