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A Hard-Fought Peace of Mind

By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ALL OTHER NIGHTS

By Dara Horn

Norton. 363 pp. $24.95

On the eve of Passover in 1862, Jacob Rappaport finds himself "inside a barrel in the bottom of a boat, with a canteen of water wedged between his legs and a packet of poison concealed in his pocket." A Union soldier in New Orleans, Jacob has been ordered to murder his uncle, who his superior officers say is involved in a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Killing Uncle Harry "would do honor to your race," they tell Jacob. In their eyes Jacob is first and foremost a Jew, tainted by his ethnic kinship with Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy's secretary of state.

In the slam-bang opening pages of her superb third novel, Dara Horn masterfully establishes both a gripping plot premise and a fascinatingly conflicted protagonist. She sends Jacob roaming across a war-torn landscape to encounter a marvelous variety of characters, each imagined with empathy and depth. The relatively conventional storytelling here is quite different from the kaleidoscopic narrative techniques Horn employed in her previous books, "In the Image" and "The World to Come," but her scope is just as ambitious, her talents as prodigious as ever.

The author sets up a complex web of metaphors by launching Jacob's torturous odyssey at Passover, the feast celebrating the children of Israel's liberation from slavery. Images of confinement and escape suffuse the text, and oppression is not a distant memory for immigrants from the Old World such as is his father. Yet Southern Jews see no irony in their support for a society that enslaves Africans. Jacob is appalled by their blindness, particularly after he observes a slave auction where a young couple cling to each other, pleading not to be separated.

But he does come to some understanding of his fellow Jews when, while in flight from Confederate authorities, he takes refuge in a Jewish cemetery in Virginia. All his ancestors are buried in Europe: "He had grown up in a world without graves -- and in a land, he now knew, that wasn't yet fully his, unsanctified by death." Looking at gravestones stretching back over generations, he sees "the first Hebrew glory since ancient times . . . the glory of their finding their own promised land." That cemetery contains the forebears of Jeannie Levy, the Confederate agent Jacob has been sent to Virginia to marry and betray.

For a writer who previously displayed little interest in traditional plotting, Horn goes at it with gusto here. An intricate chain of circumstances takes Jacob to Richmond, armed with a letter from the actor Edwin Booth (brother of future Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth) that enables him to gain the confidence of Judah Benjamin in the war's final months. The coincidences and fortuitous encounters might seem a bit much, but they work because they're enfolded in the compelling depiction of a man who goes astray and must decide if there's any way he can atone for his actions.

Slavery is monstrous, Jacob is sure, and the society built on it is cruel and delusional. How could he let these judgments lead him to murder and betrayal? He had choices, he comes to realize; he could have said no when asked to do things that violated his personal sense of right and wrong. As America tears itself apart, he learns to cherish the heritage he once strove to escape, the age-old Jewish debate "about how best to be human, about the most trivial and most horrifying obligations involved in repairing a broken world." He wins the right to forgiveness when he finally summons the courage to say no, and for the first time he truly knows who he is.

That radiant moment affirming the power of love takes place on a hill overlooking a city in flames. Horn is too gifted and ambitious an artist to settle for easy reassurances or a facile happy ending; she instead offers her readers the deeper satisfactions of complexity and generosity as she limns a world of agonizing, implacable moral ambiguities and guides her imperfect yet lovable protagonist toward a tentative redemption.

Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar. Her book reviews appear frequently in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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