Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book review: Dara Horn, All Other Nights

Horn, Dara. All Other Nights. New York: Norton, April 2009. Hardback, $24.95/C$27.50, 384pp, 978-0-393-06492-6.

(Sent to me for Librarything's Early Reviewers program and cross-posted here.)

With its focus on Jewish spies during the American Civil War, Dara Horn’s All Other Nights breaks new ground, though praising it simply for the uniqueness of its subject doesn’t feel quite fair. Rather, it’s how the author develops this fascinating cross-section of history and adds to it an emotionally involving storyline that makes it such a rich, engrossing read. Her characters are original and distinct, and she interweaves her dramatic plot with many timeless themes: racial injustice, the ties of love and family, the Jews’ enduring search for belonging, the price of blind devotion, and the true meaning of freedom. As briskly paced and complex as an espionage thriller yet as thought-provoking as the best literary fiction, it offers a combination that’s hard to resist.

The novel follows one man’s path to self-discovery, a journey fraught with moral dilemmas. On Passover in 1862, Union soldier Jacob Rappaport finds himself in an unspeakable situation. Our protagonist, as Horn tells us, has difficulty saying no. Having fled New York and joined the army to avoid an arranged marriage, he runs up against yet another painful decision. But for Jacob, unused to speaking up for himself and determined to prove himself worthy, it’s not as hard a choice as it should be.

Jacob’s superior officers order him to kill his uncle, a loyal Confederate who is planning to assassinate President Lincoln. To accomplish his task, Jacob travels down the Mississippi concealed in a barrel at the bottom of a boat and arrives at his relatives’ New Orleans home on the first night of the Jewish holiday. Ironically, on this night celebrating Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in ancient times, the family and guests are waited upon by slaves. Jacob’s answer to the ritual question posed at the seder table (“How is tonight different from all other nights?”) becomes clear as he dutifully carries out his mission.

His commander’s follow-up request, that he infiltrate a ring of suspected Confederate spies by marrying one of them, brings him next to New Babylon, Virginia. Eugenia Levy is a beautiful nineteen-year-old with a talent for acting and sleight of hand, and she and her three sisters are up to their necks in espionage. Predictably, Jacob falls deeply in love with the woman he’s been ordered to betray, and their marriage, though based in lies, develops into a genuine union. The plot takes many surprising twists from that point forward.

There’s a lot about history, culture, and Jewish tradition to absorb here, but the author takes care not to lay the details on too thick. She conveys the devastation and heartbreak wrought by the Civil War without depicting battle scenes, reminding us that not all of the war’s meaningless deaths occurred on the field. Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s (Jewish) Secretary of State, plays a major secondary role. To readers unfamiliar with Civil War politicians or Jewish American history, his very existence will be a revelation. In historical novels, scenes in which real-life figures bare their souls to fictional characters seem almost too pat, but Horn balances the history and fiction very well. (The detailed author’s note should satisfy all but the most pedantic Civil War buffs.)

The same holds true for the personal versus the epic. In a novel that never loses sight of the bigger picture, Horn also includes memorable details that illustrate the times, such as the pitiful image of a young, barefoot slave girl scrubbing out a sooty fireplace. And in an era where Yankees and Rebels use ciphers to communicate with fellow sympathizers, it’s only fitting that – as in one clever instance – Jews make use of their own secret codes to verbally identify one another.

All Other Nights is rich in cultural and religious symbolism, meaning that these and other scenes can be read on multiple levels for deeper impact. However, and to its credit, it's also completely accessible to readers with no prior knowledge of the place, period, or people, as well as to those who normally avoid literary fiction. The result is a brilliantly composed, compulsively readable historical epic that should appeal to a wide audience. Very highly recommended.

8 comments:

  1. I just requested this from the library. It looks wonderful!

    Lezlie

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  2. Great review - I'm putting this in my Amazon cart!!! Looks like I'm going to have a very busy April!

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  3. It's an amazing book, Lezlie and Michelle - I hope you both enjoy it!

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  4. Thanks for the review - it sounds a remarkable book.

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  5. Just now happening on this review--I'm looking forward to reading this one!

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  6. So jaded on Civil War fiction -- I read somewhere that it's the most popular topic for writers and readers of historical fiction. But this book sounds, yes, different, enough that I'm going to put it on my Christmas list.

    Your point about people's lives off the battlefield also being affected is a good one. I, for one, am much more interested in social/cultural history than male-oriented, battle-oriented tales composing "traditional" history. After all, it's not the field they're fighting for, but the world offstage, so to speak.

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  7. Thanks for commenting, Sherry. I'm not a big fan of Civil War fiction either, particularly "big battle" novels or the slightly less ubiquitous male coming-of-age stories. I put my name into the hat for this one because it looked to take a new angle, and the Jewish emphasis intrigued me. From what friends tell me, this is different from Horn's usual style, though I haven't gotten around to reading any of the others yet.

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  8. Anonymous8:49 PM

    What a book! It should be read by everyone, history buffs like me, or anyone else. The book is very sensitive.
    Jon Tunick

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