If we are timid or rebellious or both, then travel – by itself and by ourselves – forces us to leave our old lives behind. Travel can overcome habitual resistance and the soul in motion along magnetic lines of attraction. On foreign soil, desires – denied, policed, constrained at home – can be unbound. What hides beneath the skin-thin surface of the domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult.
Why then, truly, had I come to Egypt? To flee everything that was conventional and predictable and respectable. I wanted to lock up my mother’s house in Cedar Glen and walk away from my own dull mediocrity. I wanted to escape anyone and everything that had ever told me No.
page 138, hardcover
The dead narrator, Agnes Shanklin, is a forty year-old spinster who loses her entire family, and almost her own life to the 1918 influenza outbreak. A school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, she decides to use some of her inheritance to travel to Egypt, where her sister spent many years as a missionary. She travels with her little dachshund, Rosie, who causes more than a few problems in Cairo.
In 1921 the fate of the current Middle East was squarely in the hands of the power players at the Cairo Peace Conference. T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Gertrude Bell were a few of the people that Agnes came in contact with. Lawrence had been friends with her sister before he became Lawrence of Arabia and through him Agnes was shown into the inner circle where she often shared her hardly esteemed American views. Her unexpected contact with these power brokers, placed her squarely in the path of the German spy, Karl Weilbacher.
I was enchanted by Agnes . The running dialog in her head from her mother and a few others imortant to her was a wonderful way to show how she gained strength and confidence and finally become her own woman. The fact that she was dead when she was narrating this book was unexpected and enjoyable. Her attachment to her dog Rosie, was a hit with me and I’m sure any other dog lover. This is as much of her coming of age story as it is an historical one.
Russell did extensive research on the main players. I was excited to learn that Churchill’s bodyguard was based on the real man who had written a book about that time. Agnes’s detailed tour through Palestine, Jerusalem and Nile made you feel as though you were right there, although they were the only parts of the book I founds myself sometimes skimming.
I love the nod to Russell’s Cleveland roots by featuring the famous department store Halle’s (inspiration for Halle Berry’s name) and the clerk who was dating Les Hope, who was thinking of changing his name to Bob :)
This book is so relevant today that I must recommend it for anyone interested in what is going on in the Middle East and our foreign policy. Russell became interested in this topic when Osama bin Laden claimed this Peace Conference in Cairo was the reason for the 9-11 attacks. It could not be any more timely.