Civil War tale echoes Passover themes

By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2009

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Slaves and tyrants. Oppression in an unfamiliar land. Backbreaking labor and terrible suffering. Redemption at the hands of an all-powerful Great Father. The parallels between the Israelites’ bondage and that of African-American slaves are numerous, extensive, and immediately evident. Slaves and abolitionists alike called on the God of the Old Testament to redeem these captives like He had those in the land of Egypt.

For the mostly Jewish characters of Dara Horn’s third novel, “All Other Nights,’’ the Passover story of slavery and redemption is a living tableau, as ever-present as the reports from Antietam and Vicksburg. Its meaning, however, remains mutable, fluctuating with the progress of the Civil War that rages around them, and the color of the uniforms their soldiers wear.

Horn is a novelist devoted to Jewish themes. Her previous novel, “The World to Come,’’ was also a story of Jews in dark times, haunted by the past and tormented by the present. Beginning with its title (which echoes one of the Four Questions from the Passover liturgy), “All Other Nights’’ is a Passover story, and the images Horn draws on, the metaphors she reaches for, are Jewish ones. The novel is slow to develop, but its ultimate success stems from its religious underpinnings. Its symbolic withdrawals are underwritten by the gold of the biblical narrative. Those resonances - the parallels Horn draws between those slaves and these, between the redeemer of the Old Testament and His manifold successors - give the novel a richness and vigor often lacking in contemporary fiction about this country’s bloodiest war.

For Jacob Rappaport, son of a New York entrepreneur caught behind enemy lines on a mission to uncover a Confederate spy, freedom from bondage is hardly a metaphor to be trotted out once a year with the unleavened bread. Himself freed from the indentured servitude of a loveless marriage by enlistment, Jacob’s experience of the South is of a vast sleight-of-hand trick: “The delusion was grand, glorious, and they were all part of it.’’ The South’s master apologists turn slavery into freedom, and the oppressors into the oppressed. Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis’s right-hand man, shows up at Jacob’s uncle’s Passover Seder to draw an implicit parallel between the Jewish people and the Confederacy, referring to one of the most famous passages in the Haggadah text: “Every time they rise up to destroy us, Providence rescues us from their hands.’’

Jacob himself is no stranger to sleight of hand. Tasked by his superiors with the mission of marrying one of the Levy family’s daughters, he instead finds himself falling deeply in love with his prey. Love is a kind of magic, practiced by the masters of its occult arts. Eugenia Levy steals Jacob’s heart by first swiping his wallet.

Torn between his commitments to the Union and his own union, Jacob is forced to betray his adoptive family to protect the family of Americans. The rightness of his cause cannot erase the damage he has done to those he loves, and the second half of “All Other Nights’’ consists of Jacob’s attempt to fulfill the religious commandment, incumbent on all Jews, to redeem those held captive. In one of the book’s tenderest moments, Jacob sings the song of praise, composed by the Israelites to celebrate the drowning of their Egyptian tormentors, to a young African-American boy. Although God had drowned the enemy, the Israelites were chastised for rejoicing at their enemies’ suffering. Horn too seeks to complicate the Civil War’s simplistic tales of sin and redemption. In this extended family of Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, every victory is also, in some way, a defeat.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe.


By Dara Horn

Norton, 363 pp., $24.95

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