Review: All Other Nights, by Dara Horn
Norton, 2009. 363 pp. $15
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” So goes the first of the Four Questions asked at the Passover seder by the youngest person there.
And that youngest person, in many ways, is nineteen-year-old Jacob Rappaport, who flees his New York mercantile family in 1861 to join the army. He’s escaping an arranged marriage in which he’s a financial pawn–traded like human chattel, if you will–and the army seems the best alternative. It never occurs to him that he could simply decline the marriage, nor does he anticipate the Civil War, which breaks out a few months later.
The following year, 1862, the word no eludes Private Rappaport once more when his superiors in the Eighteenth New York press him to undertake a mission behind enemy lines in New Orleans. They want him to poison his Uncle Harry, who, their intelligence tells them, leads a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Vulnerable to their shaming, anti-Semitic blandishments, Jacob agrees, which of course only confirms them in their prejudices. And when he returns from this mission, they’ve got another assignment–inveigle his way into the home of a Jewish Virginia merchant he’s met through his father’s business and marry one of the daughters. They’re Confederate spies, apparently.
This sounds absolutely preposterous, but the genius of All Other Nights is that when you read it, your disbelief drops away. It’s not just that Horn has thoroughly researched daily life during the Civil War, Jewish communities of the 1860s, espionage, manners, or a dozen other things, though she has. It’s that I believe how lost Jacob is, how he longs for the same things as the people he’s working to betray, those human qualities so precious in wartime–kindness, a ready ear, acceptance, love. He’s enchanted to find that those qualities still exist, and he’s not being two-faced when he offers them in return, which makes him sympathetic.
He thought of the filthy camps where he had slept and eaten for most of the past year, the mud-coated tents and the vomit-stained blankets on ordinary nights, and then the choking smell of already rotting flesh on those howling twilit evenings when he had clawed his way off battlefields, the night air riven with the long screams of those not yet dead. It suddenly seemed impossible to him that those places and this room could exist in the same world. He looked around the table at the faces of the chattering Levy daughters and imagined that this room was a sealed compartment in time and space, with an entire world contained within it–an alternative world, independent from reality, where this house with its lights and laughter and beautiful girls had somehow, impossibly, become his home.
Film enthusiasts will notice that Jacob’s attempt to marry into this family parallels an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Notorious (in which Ingrid Bergman marries Claude Rains and reports what happens in the house to Cary Grant). But if you’re going to borrow, take from the best, and Horn has done brilliantly, alternately thwarting and rewarding Jacob so often he doesn’t know which way is up. It’s “no–and furthermore” taken to dizzying heights. Hitchcock would be delighted.
Into this mix, Horn throws Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederacy’s secretary of state, a fascinating figure. Through him, as with Jacob, she shows how difficult it was to be Jewish, but even more, a Jewish statesman. Horn gives Benjamin an eloquent line, “All Hebrews know that there is nothing honorable about subjugation and defeat,” an epitaph for the Lost Cause that one wishes the South had embraced.
I’ve complained when authors use their characters’ Jewishness as a tool or symbol, and that it feels skin-deep at best. But here, the Jews are real, as is their complex calculus required to navigate a hostile, bigoted world. Every move Jacob makes becomes freighted with anxious meanings, except when he’s among his brethren. But since those brethren are southern, he still can’t be himself, so the tension never lets up.
Despite my admiration for All Other Nights, I think the book could have been shorter; there’s a packed feel to it. The New Orleans segment, Jacob’s first adventure, seems unnecessary and less plausible than the rest. But that part does contain a beautiful scene, a Passover seder in which slaves bring to the table the matzo and bitter herbs, reminders of biblical slavery in Egypt. How Jacob’s southern cousins manage to overlook the irony fascinates him–another way of saying that even if it’s packed too full, All Other Nights always has something to say.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.