I decided that I would start with Mary Doria Russell, a recent (to me) author discovery and one who rapidly leaped to close to the top of my favorite list of writers. Also, I chose her, today, because I had previously written these reviews. I only had to cut and paste most of the text that follows.I get to use from my previous writings!
Mary Russell has written her best work later in her life than many authors. Dr. Russell previously was in rehabilitative medicine, and she taught anatomy in a healthcare educational program. Russell’s earlier works were in Science Fiction, but it was her Historical Fiction with which she captured me.
I have selected four of her historical fiction novels to introduce you to her:
DOC — EPITAPH — DREAMERS of the DAY — A THREAD of GRACE
“Dreamer” and “Thread” are fictional narratives,(as are all four) but they contain factual history that every cultural literate person should have incorporated in their memory banks.
1 and 2 DOC and EPITAPH: (written with intervening years but one must read both to complete the tale. Therefore, I will merge their reviews. Mary Doria Russell has penned, in two required novels of historical fiction, a most original picture of a classic, near-mythical, tale of the American Western. We must have seen a fist-full of re-makes of movies and television productions of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and The Gunfight at OK Coral. As the author reminds us, the “gunfight” eclipsed only thirty seconds of “clock time”.It involved a few ordinary men.The meager accomplishments and identities of these men might otherwise have been lost in the dustbin of history were it not for the antagonists Clanton Gang. The wildly popular dime novels of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries magnified these events. These ubiquitous little books fed a story-hungry, infant movie industry followed by television’s first needs. Russell has taken a tired and old myth and in a two-volume treatise of historical and barely fiction delivers a “can’t-put-it-down, page-turner”. She accomplishes this even though we know the climax before we start reading the opening page. The narrative extends from New York, Georgia, Texas, Kansas, and Arizona then to San Francisco and even Hollywood. The story continues over a period of almost a hundred years.
I was reminded of James Michener’s epic expositions. It is obvious that Russell invested an enormous amount of time in research, combing through period publications and interviews. These novels are also remarkable for the complex character development and good old-fashioned storytelling. These are Immensely entertaining and significant works.
3 DREAMERS of the DAY: A review of the history of the modern Middle East.
I selected this history by Russell because one needs to understand the somewhat arbitrary architecture of the political and governing geography of the nations/states of The Middle East. I often hear discussions that seem to assume that these geographical entities, as now defined, have previously existed from time immemorial. Even though it is historically accurate that there have been “nations/ tribes” identified as Arabs, Azeris, Persians, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and Jewish as well as several minorities for centuries, the vague and contested boundaries have moved and been redefined many times. Of course at least three of the World’s greatest and largest religions compete for this blood-soaked Holy Land. Many people are surprised to learn that the current nation/ states and governments were only defined less than one hundred years ago, after the First World War. I have to be continually reminded that these invented entities and redefinitions are only thirteen years older than I am! They are defended with the greatest of tribal passions and sacrifice. The concentration of one of the largest sources of essential oil remains an important driving issue. I find it ironic that this oil is both the prize and the fuel for the engines of war that are used in the constant carnage employed to control this triplicated site of the birth of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.
This narrative is told in the first person by a fictional character, Agnes Shanklin. Miss Shanklin’s story is the creation of the modern Middle East at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell met to decide the fate of the Arab world – and of our own.
A 40-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio, still reeling from the tragedies of the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1918, our narrator has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the Peace Conference convenes, Agnes enters into the company of the historic luminaries who will, in the space of only a few days at a hotel in Cairo, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
While not a participant at the conference, Agnes is ostensibly insignificant, and that makes her a welcome sounding board for Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell. As she observes the tumultuous inner workings of nation-building, she is drawn more and more deeply into geopolitical intrigue. As an aside, she has a personal awakening with an intimacy with a German spy.
Another reviewer says: “With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines.” Dreamers of the Day is a memorable, passionate, gorgeously written novel.
As a final reasoning regarding life, Mary Doria Russell, through the voice of Agnes Shanklin councils: “Read to children, vote and never buy anything from a man selling fear.” 30
4 A THREAD of GRACE: It seems an essential component of Television News and a favorite of internet videos, are dramatic reports of people who, with great courage and determination, have overcome a congenital handicap or physical injury, to achieve a remarkable skill. Quadriplegics and amputees are shown painting art with a teeth held brush, or dancing and running on prosthetics. There’s even a guy who can pitch a baseball with his feet. It appears to me that physical challenges stimulate a survival response of: “this physical obstacle will not arrest me! I will prove to the world that I have whatever is required.” These factors are physical.
Ironically, the biggest negatives for humans, have no physical reality; no substance; they are not composed of molecules or atoms nor the lack of something one can touch. These are creations of the adult human imagination. Their names are fear and resistance. I understand how chemical errors in DNA replication and physical trauma are imposed on us. What is remarkable and puzzling is how these invented ideas are passed to our children who do not come with them. Like hate, our children are taught resistance and fear.
Go to any group of kindergarten children and ask: “Who can sing?” Every hand goes up; several start singing without an invitation. “Who can dance? Kids get up and improvise an Aretha Franklin imitation! At least until we start to school, we are not encumbered by resistance and fear, which strengthens my argument. These significant negatives are without substance and should it should be more nearly manageable than physical handicaps.
Regardless of their explanation, these threats immobilize us and, even worse, are accountable for destruction, injury and death worse than diseases,
I have just finished what I believe is the definitive treatise on Fear. Mary Doria Russell penned A Thread of Grace, a somber, yet riveting, historical fiction set in Italy during WWII, dissects the entire spectrum of human behavior from the most deplorable to the most loving, benevolent and selfless. The extent of the physical destruction is beyond description.
The Epilogue of this book rattled me to my bones. Russell lists the enormous, and considerably protracted consequences of inhuman actions with resounding effects manifest to this day, and pointedly shows that it was primarily orchestrated by “the corporal-messenger survivor of the First War, a hollow, little man who never fired a gun” and persuaded other people to cause the injury, death and destruction!
Charles Clanton Rogers, [four reviews joined and revised] September 9, 2015
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(1) DOC, A NOVEL, Russell, Mary Doria, Harper Collins 2012
(2) EPITAPH, A NOVEL, Russell, Mary Doria, HaperCollins, 2015
(3) DREAMERS of the DAY, Russell, Mary Doria, Random House 2010
(4) A THREAD of GRACE, Russell, Mary Doria, Barnes, and Noble, 2012