““Or simply look at a globe, and weep. Despite it all, there was still a chance for peace, even then, in some few places. If no single person could make things right after the Great Way, young Neddy Lawrence still hoped to make them less wrong in one corner of the world. The rest of my story is a small part of his, and a large part of yours, I’m afraid.”
Speaking from the grave, Agnes Shanklin, relates the events of her life beginning with WWI though the Great Depression. Agnes, who has grown up in the shadow of her beautiful, younger sister and under the thumb of an oppressive mother. As a result, she has developed an inferior complex. When she comes into an inheritance, Agnes travels to Egypt and inadvertently becomes an eyewitness to the events that would lead to the creation of the modern-day Middle East.
I think Russell uses fiction as an excellent tool for relating history. This work is no exception. While I would caution the reader against comparing it to her other work like Doc, I think as a stand alone work it does a very good job of recounting the important, and complex issues of this time. I've seen a lot of criticism of Russell's work. It is an unusual perspective with the narrator talking to us from the grave. But, I rather enjoyed that aspect. I would also agree that the reader must be willing to take suspension of disbelief to its greatest extent to accept that Churchill, TE Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell would welcome a 5th grade teacher into their circle at this point in history. But, if the reader can get past that conundrum, there are some real gems within the work.
A couple of favorite passages:
“Foreigners nearly always wish to simplify the Middle East, Agnes. They cannot tolerate to feel ignorant long enough to understand it.” (pg 130)
“Humiliation is not the same as embarrassment, I realized. If you know yourself to be clumsy and never pretend otherwise, you might well be embarrassed when you trip over your own feet upon entering a room, but you won’t be ashamed. You can laugh at yourself and shrug the embarrassment off. Humiliation, by contrast, does not merely require open recognition of an acknowledged foible. Humiliation is public exposure of some secret vanity.” (pg 67)
As Mark Twain observed long ago, there’s hardly a square yard of land anywhere on earth that’s in the possession of its original owners” (pg 241)
All men dream…but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was in vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” (pg 243)
In my own personal opinion, the lives of Gertrude Bell and Lawrence are intriguing enough that non-fiction work far surpasses any fictional work. But, if you are person that gains more insight from a historical fiction work, this is certainly worth a read to understand the issues of this time.”
This was my first Russell and I loved it. I've never forgotten the Spanish flu section of the story, which I found moving.
I thought the Spanish flu section was one of the strongest points as well. It was interesting how she showed the impacts on Agnes's family, the nation, and the discussions at Versailles.