Historical characters and events are neatly blended with fiction in “All Other Nights,” by Dara Horn, an exciting novel about Jews and the Civil War. Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Secretary of State, plays a key role. More significant is the infamous General Order #11 in which General Ulysses S. Grant expelled Jews from the area under his command as war profiteers who violated “every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.” President Abraham Lincoln revoked the order three weeks after it was issued.
The protagonist in the story is Jacob Rappaport, son of a wealthy Jewish import-export merchant in New York. In 1861, Jacob’s father is making an advantageous business deal with David Jonas that is conditioned on Jacob, who is 18, marrying Jonas’s daughter, an “utterly homely” 17-year old who “suffered from some sort of mental deficiency.” On the night before the wedding, Jacob flees and joins the Union Army.
Jacob does well as a soldier and is given a special assignment to disguise himself as a Confederate. He is to go to New Orleans where he is expected to assassinate his uncle who is plotting to kill President Lincoln. Although conflicted by issues of family loyalty, Jacob carries out this mission successfully. He is then ordered to go to New Babylon, Va., home of the Levy family. Philip Levy had been a business partner of Jacob’s father. He and his four daughters are suspected of being Confederate spies. Jacob’s task is to marry Jeannie, one of the girls, in order to determine the accuracy of the suspicions. Again, regardless of conflicts of conscience, Jacob fulfills his orders. After a harrowing series of adventures, he eventually returns to Union lines where he is congratulated for having broken up the spy ring. However, any satisfaction he might have felt disappears when he learns that Jeannie, whom he has come to love, was taken prisoner and supposedly died in jail.
Promoted to sergeant for his achievements, Jacob is transferred to the Department of Tennessee where Grant is conducting the western campaign. He meets and falls in love with Abigail Solomon before he is severely wounded in battle. Heart-rending events pile up in rapid sequence furthering Jacob’s maturation. Judah Benjamin plays an important role in what ensues, contributing to Jacob’s awareness of his individuality. The richness of the background painted so ably by Horn makes what is a coming-of-age saga a compelling account of one man’s development through the horrors of the Civil War.
This spy novel cuts deeply into complicated issues of family faithfulness, particularly affecting Jews who were on both sides during the Civil War. Horn’s skill as a writer and depth of comprehension is fully realized in this remarkable novel. Her third book, “All Other Nights” provides indisputable evidence of why she was selected by Granta magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists. Her two previous books, “In the Image,” and “The World To Come,” both received National Jewish Book Awards. A Harvard Ph.D. in comparative literature, Horn has taught at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College and has lectured at universities throughout the United States and Canada. We eagerly await her fourth novel.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)