Dara Horn’s “All Other Nights”: Freedom and Slavery

By | Tagged: History

Dara Horn has never been a writer who shies away from strong imagery. Her first novel, In the Image, features a catatonic flood that wrecks a New Jersey town. In The World to Come, an antisocial bachelor at a Jewish singles event in a museum mopes in a corner and inadvertently steals a framed Chagall painting.

All Other Nights
— which comes out in paperback on March 10 — is no exception. A Passover story about slavery and the American South, plotting all other nightswith his future sisters-in-law to marry an “uppity woman”-type sister, simultaneously running away from one destiny while sliding seamlessly into a destiny of a very different caliber — there are grand themes and epic storytelling, but Nights is about as subtle as the Civil War itself.

Jacob, a young man from New York, is sent across the Mason-Dixon Line at the height of the war as a spy with instructions to pay his uncle and aunt a visit. The Southern Rappaports are hosting a Passover seder, and Jacob has been ordered to poison his uncle, a conspirator in a plot to assassinate President Lincoln.

The night of the seder, the family receives an unexpected visitor in the person of Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish second-in-command of the Confederacy, and Jacob is forced to decide just whom he’s expected to make his move on. Just when we think it’s a simple matter of
Inglourious Basterds
-type fan fiction, things become a lot more complicated. For one thing, Benjamin doesn’t simply die. For another, that’s just the first fifty pages — a teaser for a much longer and more intricate plot that dwarfs the moral quandaries of assassinating your own uncle.

Shortly after All Other Nights came out, Horn casually mentioned to me that she was afraid her Torah metaphor was too blatant — “After all,” she laughed to herself, “I named my main character ‘Jacob’.” For a moment, I was stunned. It actually hadn’t occurred to me at all — Jacob in the book, like Jacob in the Good Book, was part of an arranged marriage; was indentured to his father-in-law in a work arrangement for years; and was, as a child, when his mother dressed him up, definitely guilty of more than one instance of espionage.

Posted on March 9, 2010

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