Jacob's cloak, dagger

review

Dara Horn's 'All Other Nights' tells the story of Jews during the Civil War

March 29, 2009|By Jeff Landaw | Jeff Landaw,jeff.landaw@baltsun.com

All Other Nights

By Dara Horn

W.W. Norton & Co. / 384 pages / $24.95

A ll Other Nights is such an apparent departure from Dara Horn's previous work that when I learned what Horn was writing, I thought she might not be able to bring it off. I should have known better.

Unlike Horn's excellent first novel, In the Image, and her jaw-dropping The World to Come, All Other Nights starts in the territory of historical thrillers. Jacob Rappaport, the son of a German-Jewish New York merchant, escapes marriage to a business partner's mentally handicapped daughter by joining the Union Army, which ropes him into cloak-and-dagger work. His superiors have him smuggled into New Orleans to poison an uncle who's been talking about killing Lincoln; then they send him to occupied Virginia to marry into a Jewish family of suspected Confederate spies.

That lets Horn work in plenty of set-pieces, which she does very well, from the Passover Seder evening where the first wedding is proposed (there will be other Seders in the book, and the Seder's theme of freedom, in a slaveholding nation, echoes throughout) to the burning of Richmond. What lifts her work well above the level of genre is her understanding that while what happens next matters, what happens inside the characters' heads matters more.

Horn observes after Jacob flees from the proposed marriage that he never understood that "he could have said no." Jacob feels - lives - the consequences of saying no, or failing to say it. These consequences merge into the larger themes of identity, commitment, love and loss, redemption, truth and deception. One of Jacob's Union superiors makes the subtlest pun in the book, one that slides by unnoticed at first, when he says of the poisoning plot and Jacob's uncle's "treason" in joining the Confederacy, "It can all be corrected with a little lye."

One of Horn's most important themes is the position of Jews in the United States in its greatest crisis. Jacob's commanders invite him to kill his uncle in terms that imply that refusing could be dangerous for the whole "Hebrew race" in America. Judah Benjamin, the "Jewish prince of the Confederacy," warns Jacob's uncle that he and the Jews will get no glory if he tries to carry out his assassination plot: "We can be slave-owners, we can own whole plantations, but as far as everyone else is concerned, you and I will always be runaway slaves." And Jacob is serving in Mississippi when Grant, commanding the western theater, issues his infamous order - swiftly reversed by Lincoln - expelling the Jews.

(In Mississippi, Jacob reunites a young, widowed Jewish tavern owner with her first love; she turns out to be a cousin of the Virginia family he's supposed to infiltrate. That is more likely than it might seem today: Before the great migration from the Russian Empire began in the 1880s, the American Jewish community was so small that any given family had a good chance of being related, or at least known, to any other.)

Horn is also wise enough to give Jacob a worm's-eye view of the war instead of wax-museum encounters with Great Personages at Great Moments. The only significant historical figures in the book are Edwin Booth, the celebrated actor and brother of Lincoln's killer, who makes a short but important appearance; John Surratt, the Confederate spy and courier whose mother, Mary, was hanged for her alleged part in the murder of Lincoln; and Judah Benjamin, the British-born Jewish lawyer and politician who was Jefferson Davis' right hand in the Confederate Cabinet - and his spymaster. Jacob, so crippled and disfigured that Benjamin doesn't recognize him from the Seder where his uncle died, makes working for Benjamin a way to carry out his own last, personal mission.

That mission, and the idea of bitter-end faithfulness to an extreme, delusional cause, suggest the Joseph Conrad of The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. But All Other Nights ends, as The World to Come did, on a note of ambiguity that holds out more hope than Conrad allows even his most innocent characters.

For a writer as young as Horn to be compared with Conrad shows what kind of league she's playing in. And she plays in it with a skill well beyond her years.

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