Thursday, December 15, 2022

Jewish Book Month: Holiday that Isn't Hanukkah


I reviewed this book in 2009.

All Other Nights by Dara Horn. Published 2009 by W.W. Norton.

Click here to buy All Other Nights from your favorite indie bookseller.

I received an advance readers copy of All Other Nights courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program.

All Other Nights is an absorbing page-turner about Jewish life during the American Civil War by Dara Horn, author of The World To Come, which is sitting on my bookshelf, positively begging me to take it down. But first things first.

Young Jacob Rappaport, scion of a wealthy New York family, runs away from home when his father arranges a marriage between Jacob and the daughter of a business associate. Jacob joins the Union Army and is soon dispatched to New Orleans, assigned to assassinate a would-be assassin of Abraham Lincoln; the assassin happens to be Jacob's uncle. Following the successful completion of this assignment, Jacob is sent back to the South, this time faced with insinuating himself into the Levy family, an eccentric band of Confederates, and marrying Levy daughter Eugenia a.k.a. Jeannie, an actress who the Union suspects is a spy. From here to the last page, it's game on.

All Other Nights is a big, intimidating-looking book, but it's packed back to front with action and reads very quickly. Horn writes with dizzying efficiency; each chapter could be its own television episode. Remember back when there were these things called mini-series on television? For a week or so, a network would put all of its regular programming on hold and viewers would be treated to an epic, multi-part drama, usually historical or romantic- or both. North and South. Roots. The Winds of War. All Other Nights is that kind of story- sweeping, dramatic and full of action, romance, intrigue and hustle and bustle.

I would describe the style of writing as light historical fiction; Horn concentrates on action and plot over character and other considerations, although Jacob is especially well-drawn and the Levy sisters have distinct, if roughly sketched, personalities. The real star of the book is the Civil War itself and the chaos it wreaked on America. Jacob gets caught up in all kinds of machinations and plots and counter-plots; following his adventures made for compulsively readable fun. It was fascinating to learn about some of the real-life American Jews who were important in the Civil War, like Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis's second in command, and to get a little glimpse into early American Jewish culture through the stories of the book's fictional families. Everyone has their own story, and it was great fun to see how it all turned out.

The title is at once a reference to the first of the Four Questions traditionally asked and answered at the Passover Seder ("Why is this night different from all other nights?") and a reference to something Judah Benjamin says close to his last appearance in the book- a statement to the effect that people can't change, and that the person you are tonight is the person you are on all other nights. In other words, this night may be different from all other nights, but we are the same. But is that the case? Can people change? One of the questions haunting the background of the book is the question of character, motivation and the essence of personality. Do our actions define us? Do we have good reasons for the bad things we do? Do those bad things make us bad people? Is it possible to recover, or to forgive? The end, which comes abruptly, offers no easy answers but still leaves the possibility of hope and a better future.

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