I was in my early twenties when I first encountered this book newly published in the nineties. Having migrated from a very rural segregated area (read: white) to a new state and somewhat small city where the shade of multiculturalism was just beginning to spread over the pale masses there—or so I thought in my whitewashed undereducated unawareness—I was culturally ignorant but voraciously inquisitive. To be fair, I wasn’t a total rube. I spent my junior and senior years—the late eighties—in two different high schools—Ohio and North Carolina—and connected with two people that I’m only now realizing affected me in ways that altered the course of who I was and am today. One was an Indian-American boy I dated my junior year. I don’t remember us ever talking about him being the brown boy and me being the blonde white girl. There was no bigotry of what I can remember, but I don’t deny I
could’ve been probably was blind to it. We were just kids having fun. It was only brief as teen romances usually are and we parted friends.
The next year, my senior year, I was the new girl, again. We moved to the rural south and with it, a large county high school. The first day, I sat in the office waiting with another girl; she was an exchange student from Indonesia and she was Muslim. I’ll call her Dee to respect and preserve her privacy. Coincidentally, the spelling of our last names was so similar, we ended up alphabetically next to each other. That didn’t matter though since we already became fast friends sitting there waiting to be processed into our new school. We were inseparable the entire year until she left to go back to Indonesia the following spring after graduation. She cried, I cried, we all cried. Her host family didn’t want her to leave; I didn’t want her to leave, but she left and the last I heard lives happily still in Jakarta with her husband and children.
I remember her patience as I continuously pestered her with questions about her culture, her religion, her family, her city, and country and listening to my continuing bellowing of problems from my broken dysfunctional home. I watched her pray too and was so thoroughly fascinated that I told her so, which she smiled politely and said thank you. She loved pizza and together we loved Boris Becker and Steffi Graf and tennis. Fascinated with food, she experimented and ate like no one I’d ever met before asking questions both about the food and my history with it. One day in the cafeteria while eating pizza, I reminded her that pepperoni was pork. She took a bite and, mouth full yum-yumming so endearingly, said: “no it isn’t.” I argued, “it is.” She continued eating calmly with that almost rapturous look on her face saying “no, it isn’t.” I laughed finally getting what she was saying: “okay, it isn’t.”
Later in my twenties after moving to my first big city and tech center (a few years after I read The Dream Hunter), and my first foray into Mexican food, I realized that Dee was probably as culturally insulated as I was when after I ordered a fajita, one of my coworkers had to instruct and help me put it together. That was after I started eating the contents leaving the tortilla sitting in its container. My coworkers laughed and I was embarrassed, but I rolled with it anyway appreciating my newly found ethnic food education and discovery. I grew up poor on beans, potatoes, veggies, cornbread and at most spaghetti; basically what we could grow or what my mom knew to pull together from her limited childhood experience with her family’s garden. So, this was like finding gold. I recognized that Dee understood her circumstances more astutely than I ever did back then. I was so slow. It’s a wonder she found me interesting at all with my limited experience and knowledge.
I did not go to college right out of high school because of a financial aid mistake that still haunts me. So, I found myself in the south working long hard minimum wage days and taking the occasional course at night when I could, toward a degree which, to this day, I never really finished. I wanted to be a historical romance writer. That or science fiction, but since I didn’t read science fiction at the time and was historically illiterate, I chose romance. Why? Mainly because I consumed these books in a day and had since I first encountered them as a tween picking through a neighbor’s meager library. I wanted to write what I loved. They had fierce women that were unapologetic about their personalities, their sexuality, their right to orgasms and to be incomparable in a way they wanted and needed. I saw in them what I desired. Their adventures were mine. I needed these stories and I wanted to write these words. That dream puttered by the wayside when life and work became the forefront of my world. I wrote again—after many years later and divorce, layoffs, terminations, and depression—mostly as therapy. That never went anywhere either besides some amateur poetry and two books that I’ve since deleted because they were so bad, to read them was caustic to my own present writing. More years elapsed, again, with the failure of a photography small business that I had come to hate and dead-end jobs, and here I am attempting once again to build worlds with words.
In the midst of all that life and chaos and since this book was first published in 1994, I’ve read The Dream Hunter at least a dozen times. This book is my Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice; it is my Catcher in the Rye and Harry Potter. I go back to it time and time again. I’m intrigued by the characters, the setting, and the culture especially Zenia aka Zenobia. Zenia is a white girl in a brown foreign country. She was raised around the Bedouin and the Mohammedans and had a passionate intense mother that did as much harm as she did good; there’s a beautiful broody djinni—or as his father says: “the most perverse creature of my acquaintance”—that loves the desert and all things foreign, who speaks fluent Arabic, is most perplexed by Lady Hester—Zenia’s mother—as he is fascinated and admired of her; there’s the girl that really isn’t a girl at all and the adventures that take her from her home in the desert to a foreign land; there’s suspense and death and resurrection and birth and rebirth and plum pudding; and there’s a reverential complexity in the characters, the setting, the cultures, the history and the romance. It also includes the underlying flux of bigotry for that time period that seems almost mild (relatively) now in light of current events.
Coming again from a place of ignorance, I have no experience or knowledge if the history, culture, customs or words within are authentic, but they sure felt real to me every time I’ve read it. I devoured Miss Kinsale’s other historical romances and found them all just as distinct and reverentially written. Flowers in the Storm is another absolute favorite that shreds me and then some; a review for another day as it requires so many more words and yet another personal story.
Since the recent reread has caused me to think again about my past and Dee, I wanted to share what this book means to me personally. Zenia reminds me of both myself and Dee and a flood of warm memories that I’ll never let go of. So, I humbly and forever thank the author for gifting me with such a lovely story and characters and I urge you to read the book. I only hope that some wealthy feminist production company will one day turn Zenia’s story into a stunning 6-10 episodic visual adventure that would probably leave me cursing and critiquing it as much as loving and worshipping it if only for the attempt and progress of women’s storytelling. Whatever though. I’ll continue to wait anxiously. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite scenes:
“Abide you.” He scowled fiercely as he lifted his hand and wiped the tears from her cheek with the back of his knuckle. “My God, I’m alive because of you.” His touch moved over her skin, slightly rough, tears and a few grains of sand on his fingers. “Little wolf! What’s your name?”
“Zenobia,” she said.
His fingers stilled. “Naturally,” he said in a dry tone. “Oh, naturally!” He stepped back and threw his hands wide. “Zenobia, queen of Palmyra!” he said with a savage flamboyance. “I can guess whose vanity that was meant to serve.”
“You can call me Zenia, if you don’t like it,” she said. “My mother did. She thought I was too missish to be a namesake for Zenobia.”
“Did she?” He gave a scornful laugh. “I’ll wager she never saw you drag a camel up a sand dune.”
Zenia looked at the floor. “No.”