Dara Horn has written three novels with Jewish and historical themes.
Photo courtesy Brendan Schulman
Meet the author
Dara Horn will attend a reading and book signing at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan on Thursday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m. The program is free with museum admission.
April 9, 2009
The sentiments of Thomas Wolfe notwithstanding, Dara Horn has proven you can go home again.
The award-winning author, who grew up in Short Hills, recently returned to her hometown after living in Manhattan for several years. These days she is getting readjusted; she recently gave birth to Eli, her third child. She and her husband, Brendan Schulman, also have three-year-old Maya and Ari, 22 months. “My daughter finally understands what it is I do,” said Horn in a phone interview. Horn gave a talk about books at her daughter’s nursery school. “It was not the kind of talk I’d give at Barnes and Noble,” she said.
Horn’s latest novel, All Other Nights, considers the story of Jacob Rappaport, a young Jewish soldier in the Union army during the Civil War. After being ordered to murder an uncle residing in the South for his role in a plot to assassinate President Lincoln, Rappaport is recruited to pursue another enemy agent: the daughter of a Virginia family friend. His assignment isn’t to murder the spy, however, but to marry her, with tragic results.
Horn, 32, received her PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006. Her first two novels — In the Image and The World to Come — were both award-winning and critical successes, and Granta magazine named her one of the “Best Young American Novelists” of 2007. She takes pride in the thoroughness of her research, yet she admits to being “nervous about approaching the subject” of Nights.
“If you make a mistake in something involving Yiddish literature, there are a very limited number of people who are going to notice,” she said. “But if you make a mistake about the Civil War, there’s an army of enthusiasts who are going to jump down your throat.”
Horn scoured official government records as well as interviews with ex-slaves conducted by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. She said it had been a relief to research a project “where everything is in English.”
Not only was it necessary to pay attention to the Civil War history, but that of the Jewish community in both the North and South. The inspiration for the book actually came from a group of long-dead Jews. Horn was speaking at an event at the New Orleans JCC when she came upon a nearby Jewish cemetery with graves dating back to the early 1800s. “My novels tend to be about periods…that aren’t terribly well-known, and that was the beginning of my interest in this time period,” she said.
Horn was surprised by the extent of information about the era. One of the items she found was a book celebrating the centennial of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Manhattan’s first Ashkenazi congregation, where Horn was a member until her return to New Jersey last December. The rabbi of the synagogue during the Civil War years was a staunch supporter of slavery, which Horn found shocking.
She also found material about Judah Benjamin, secretary of state for the Confederacy and a southern “spymaster,” as well as other Jewish spies on both sides. “Now it’s very normal to have relatives in different parts of the country, but in the 19th century that was very unusual.” Except for Jews. “Most Americans at the time were still farmers, but Jews then tended to be running…businesses and because of that they led a more mobile life, and they often would set up business contacts in other parts of the country.
“We have this tendency to believe that Jewish history in America starts in some garment industry sweat shop on the Lower East Side around 1903, and this isn’t true.”
Horn tried to incorporate the patois of the Civil War years, but realized it might be a fool’s errand. “If I really wrote in entirely authentic 19th-century English, that would be very off-putting and difficult for most modern readers. But what I did do is try to be very careful about idioms, about the expressions that people used.
“I know there will be people who will say, ‘It’s fiction, so who cares,’ but it’s important to me, not just because I’m a nerd — and that’s part of it — but part of it is a respect for the people who lived at that time.”
Horn enjoys making the author circuit, although motherhood has reduced that lately. “It’s like teaching in a way,” said the college professor who has conducted courses in Israeli history, Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and biblical themes in modern literature.
One of her first published pieces came in the pages of the MetroWest Jewish News — the forerunner to the Essex and Morris counties edition of this paper — when she was a teenager (she said she probably has a copy at her mother’s house). Her family attended Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, but her family now belongs to Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
“It’s a little surreal,” she said. “I’m shopping at the supermarket where I was in the cart; now I’m pushing the cart.”