April 2, 2009
ALL OTHER NIGHTS
By Dara Horn. Norton, 384 pages, $24.95
The Four Questions begin with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That is the query that kicks off Short Hills native Dara Horn’s new novel of intrigue during the Civil War.
Jacob Rappaport, the ostensible hero of the story, faces a number of issues. The son of an upper-middle-class Jewish family serving in the Union army, he is called upon to become a spy and infiltrate a group of Rebel sympathizers: his own relatives living in New Orleans. He assumes the role of a deserter, arriving at the family home just in time for Pesach. There is no small amount of irony in the setting, as Rappaport and his Confederate relatives gather at the holiday table: “Jacob wondered if there could be anything stranger than sitting down to a Passover seder, the feast of freedom, with every part of the meal served by slaves,” Horn writes.
Rappaport reluctantly carries out his heinous task, thereby proving his loyalty to his superiors. The question his actions raise had long plagued Jewish Americans: Where does the greater allegiance lie, to religion or country? One can picture a scene with the young man sitting before his handlers, as they pepper him with their comments and questions in rapid fire, with no thought of the impossibility of what they are requiring of him.
Unfortunately, his success convinces them to use him in other, similarly uncomfortable situations, including wooing and wedding into a family with strong Confederate ties. Although Rappaport battles his conscience, his orders win out, with tragic consequences for himself and others.
The Passover standard “Dayenu” is most appropriate when considering the mishaps that befall Rappaport: If he had only carried out the first assignment, that should have been enough — but his superiors keep sending him back into the fray, leading the reader to wonder: Were there no other Jewish soldiers available, or was he just unlucky enough to have this confluence of circumstances, of having the right (or wrong) connections that made him the only man for the job? Poor guy; Horn is asking readers to suspend disbelief to that extent.
In a later passage, she describes the daily unease Jews endured living among their Christian neighbors, looking forward to a brief Sunday respite:
For that magical hour of every week, Hebrews in every American city were free to be themselves…. It was the only time when Hebrew children were allowed to be children, released into the wilds of the gardens, streets and fields, talking as loudly as they wanted without their parents warning them to lower their voices, free to argue and rampage without the haunting fear of embarrassing their parents and thereby ruining their prospects for the lives of their dreams.
Horn, the prize-winning author of The World to Come and In the Image, deserves a good deal of credit for her attention to detail. Her “Author’s Note” puts into perspective the Jews’ situation during the Civil War era, when they were constantly looked on as “the other.” She includes in her narrative Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Order Number 11, which expelled Jewish residents of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, a decree overturned by President Abraham Lincoln.
She incorporates other real-life figures in All Other Nights, most notably Judah Benjamin, a Jew who held several high-ranking positions in the Confederacy, as well as Edwin Booth and John Surrat. For those not familiar with the era, Horn does admirable due diligence in drawing the fine line between fact and fiction.