Don’t let the Confederate flag on the cover of Dara Horn’s new novel All Other Nights scare you off. This is not your Uncle Dale’s novel of the Civil War. In fact, it’s a departure of sorts for Horn as well. I was a huge fan of her previous novel, The World to Come. That novel featured an art heist, historical fiction featuring the artist Marc Chagall, and elements of magic realism (for want of a better descriptor).
All Other Nights, on the other hand, is a full-on literary action/adventure novel, featuring, among other things, Union and Confederate spies, a plot on President Lincoln’s life, a city burning in flaming liquor, a dislocated jaw, a band comprised of members who are missing at least one limb, and a female magician. I’ve been looking forward to reading this novel since reading an early excerpt in the Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists edition in 2007.
It’s a coincidence that this post was composed during the Jewish holiday Passover, but it is fitting. The novel takes its name from one of the four questions that the youngest member of a Jewish family asks at the Passover Seder – “How is this night different from all other nights?” (Please note: I am not Jewish, so I have relied upon the web to fill in my knowledge gaps. Any gaffes in this post regarding Jewish culture are my own.)
Early in the novel, New Yorker Jacob Rappaport finds himself sharing Passover Seder with family members in New Orleans whose allegiances are with the South in the Civil War. Horn brilliantly captures the ironic juxtaposition of this celebration of Passover in Confederate New Orleans, a celebration in which the assembled are waited upon by slaves:
Jacob tried to concentrate on the story being told as they chanted the liturgy around the table, describing the anguish of their ancestors, slaves in Egypt, and the vast vindications wrought to liberate them — one of the few moments in Hebrew glory in all of history, perhaps even the only one. But now he imagined how terrible it must have been to live through: the tortures of slavery, and then the horrifying vindication of the angel of death, slaying the firstborn of Egypt so that the Israelites might be set free.
Jacob’s foreboding vision of Egypt presages the horrors that Jacob (and the country) will face over the course of the Civil War. How and why Jacob, a Union soldier, finds himself breaking bread in the Confederacy are at the very heart of this novel. Since this is very much an action/adventure novel, the less given away here the better.
There is no question that All Other Nights is also very much a literary novel. The novel explores the themes of loyalty, family, tradition, duty, honor, and the cost of slavery in America. Jacob’s experiences in the novel are an examination of how one’s life course can change dramatically – over night. Horn also looks at the Civil War through a unique lens.
A hallmark of Horn’s fiction is an exploration of lesser known chapters of Jewish history and culture. The author weaves these elements into her novels in a way that feels organic to the story being told and doesn’t come off as scholarly showboating, i.e. “let me tell you everything I learned researching this novel.” Horn’s real-life subjects are universally fascinating and appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish readers.
For example, a central character in this novel is Judah Benjamin, who held the posts, at various times, of Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State for the Confederacy. That’s a lot going on for one guy, and it explains in part why Benjamin has been known as the “brains of the Confederacy.” A left-handed compliment if there ever was one. (Benjamin was also a U.S. Senator for Louisiana prior to the succession.)
Horn also includes a chapter that was missing from my U.S. history book: General Grant’s expulsion of Jews from the Department of the Tennessee. The order is re-produced verbatim in the text, and it is shocking to experience a government-sponsored act of anti-Semitism, even for a time when slavery was the law of the land.
All Other Nights is a terrific read. I can guarantee that you will see this one on my year end Top 10 list. Granta selected Horn as one of its Best Young American Novelists, and All Other Nights shows that the editors knew what they were talking about. Dara Horn was also one of the first authors interviewed here at BGB. She now bears the dubious distinction of being the only author to be interviewed by us twice. Tune in tomorrow to read my interview with Dara Horn.