Mary Doria Russell is one of the rare writers who has actually earned a place in my permanent book collection. When you work in a library, you tend to experience the whole world as your personal library, so it usually takes something special to join those books that never need returning.
Although I love Russell's writing, I tend to recommend her with caution. She'll break your heart, you see. You will fall in love with her characters, and they will become a part of you, and you will become as invested in their journey as if it were your own, and then, like humans, they will fail, or be injured, or lose their way, or their faith, particularly their faith, and you may find yourself devastated. It's possible, for example, that my Mother has forgiven me for recommending The Sparrow, Russell's riveting tale of a Jesuit mission to a newly discovered planet, but I'm not entirely certain. She is certainly cautious whenever I recommend new things to her now.
Thus I approached Russell's new book, Dreamers of the Day, gingerly; sidling up to it, trying to avoid direct eye contact. But alas, the tale of Agnes Shanklin, an Ohio schoolteacher on holiday who finds herself caught up in the whirlwind of 1920s Middle East politics was more than a match for my caution. Reader, I was quite delighted by her story.
Although Miss Shanklin is a quiet, unassuming, easily forgotten sort of person, Miss Shanklin's story takes place at the prophetic turn of a major century. Her entire family, mother, siblings, nieces and nephews, are wiped out by the Great Influenza Epidemic, making Miss Shanklin a modest heiress, but an orphan of the soul. On an impulse, Agnes decides that, accompanied by her dear sausage dog Rosie, she will visit the Middle East where her beloved sister had once done missionary work.
Upon arrival, Miss Shanklin has the interesting fortune of running in to a former acquaintance of her sister, one Theodore Lawrence, more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia. And thus she finds herself swept into the periphery of the 1921 Cairo conference. While you are wondering why anyone might care about the 1921 Cairo conference, I can only point out that it was this august assemblage that, among other things, like establishing the future Israel, drew the boundaries and selected the leader of a theretofore completely imaginary country called "Iraq."