Friday, April 9, 2010

Reading Dreamers of the Day

During the past two weeks the E-mail Book Club in which I participated discussed Mary Doria Russell's "Dreamers of the Day."

Dreamers of the Day is narrated from the afterlife by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher from Ohio. After her family died in the flu epidemic of 1919 she took her dog, Rose, and traveled to Egypt and the Holy Land where her sister was once a missionary. While there she met Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell. Those three are very involved in the Cairo Peace Conference, a Conference that organized the boundaries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel & Jordan. Agnes met and fell in love with Karl, a German who she discovers at the end of the book is a German spy. The novel chronicles Agnes relationship with Karl, her travels through the Holy Land, and her sense of coming alive as a person.

I found Agnes' travels and her description of the Cairo Peace Conference to be fascinating. But as I shared with the rest of the Book Club, I can only take so much travel narrative until I fall asleep. It's hard for me to read about travel experiences--I would rather see pictures or watch a video.

In the last section of the book Agnes narrated the book from the after-life. I wasn't sure if the place was purgatory, the after-life, or just a creation of the after-life as Mary Doria Russell believes it to be. I found this part of the book the hardest to swallow. Russell is an agnostic—so it didn’t seem quite right to me to have her set a part of the book in the after-life. For me it would be like someone who doesn’t like football writing a story about a football team. Or a non-musician writing about a symphony orchestra. Or a Democrat setting a novel about a John Birch society group.

This led me to all sorts of questions. Do novelists have the duty to believe in their settings? Does it work for people to write about something in which they don’t believe? Does a novelist have to have a connection to a setting for it to work in the book?

I’m not sorry I read Dreamers of the Day, but in three years I doubt I’ll be able to tell you much about it.

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