Dara Horn’s books not only pull you in with their compelling plots, but force you to confront, along with the characters, issues of morality, values, and faith.
All Other Nights is a book about slavery and freedom, and how difficult it can be to distinguish one from the other in certain ways. It is set during the American Civil War, and takes its title from part of the ritual during the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the first night of the holiday, a supper called a Seder is held during which family members gather and collectively retell the Exodus story about the escape of Jews from slavery in Ancient Egypt. The youngest son initiates the process by asking “”Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Jacob Rappaport, a nineteen-year-old Union soldier, answers this question in a way that will affect the entire rest of his life. He is assigned by his commanders to attend his southern uncle’s Passover Seder and poison him during the meal; the commanders believe the uncle is part of a plot to assassinate Lincoln. Jacob would not be in favor of such a plot, and certainly he finds appalling irony in the spectacle of Jews celebrating the end of slavery while being served by slaves. But he also loves his uncle and thinks he is a good man. Still, Jacob believes he has no choice but to obey the instructions, and he may be correct. Nevertheless, he knows what he has been asked to do is wrong. Indeed, throughout the story, the entire trajectory of Jacob’s life is shaped by his inability to disobey others and to listen to his heart. As the author explains in an interview appended to the story, in this book she is exploring the many ways in which freedom can be understood; those who are physically enslaved but true to themselves can be seen as more free than those who have given up their mental liberty (whether out of ambition or love or fear).
Jacob receives another assignment, not understanding that his obedience inspires contempt rather than admiration, and is once again commanded to take advantage of love and family to betray those who trust him. But this time, he falls in love with the woman he has been sent to destroy. Jacob is not let off easy by the author; there is no facile epiphany allowing Jacob to answer to his better angels, and no perfect ending in store for him. Equivocation and attempts at atonement fail to prevent his Biblical-like punishment. Only when Jacob truly gains the courage to be true to himself will he realize any sort of redemption.
Discussion: This novel was exceptionally absorbing, reminding me of the biblical stories that weave in and out of the plot. Jacob is tried and tested, tempted and tortured; he cries out for forgiveness, but doesn’t know how to find it. His journey toward redemption takes him through a wilderness of battles and blood and betrayal and passions, and between families split down the middle by a shocking conflict over the ownership and control of human bodies. Through Jacob’s eyes we experience the horror of being attracted toward something repellant; the self-hatred that comes from realizing you are only human; and the inexorable hand of the Old Testament God, never mentioned directly, but always there: asking for righteousness, and meting out justice when righteousness is denied. This is a book that won’t fail to animate a book club, because nothing that happens lacks moral complexity.
Evaluation: This deeply imagined tale uses the setting of the Civil War to pose questions about the morality of obeying the State when you are asked to do something you consider immoral; the role of trust and honesty in creating enduring relationships; and above all, the sometimes slippery distinctions between slavery and freedom. I think this award-winning author is quite deserving of the many accolades accorded to her.
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009