About 80% historical fiction and 20% chick lit—that’s my very rough estimate of the nature of this novel by Dara Horn.
And it won’t surprise you that I enjoyed the 80% much more than the 20%.
There are, of course, tons of instances of historical fiction that take place during the Civil War, but this book is unusual among them because of the Jewish themes. We all know about Judah P. Benjamin—if you don’t know that name, go look him up, since your education about the Confederacy and Civil War has clearly missed something important—but otherwise very few Jews in the South come readily to mind for us northerners. That imbalance illustrates our northern biases, as there are and were plenty of Jewish southerners.
Anyhow, the protagonist of this novel is a fictional Union soldier. Many of the other characters are real, especially the aforementioned Benjamin. I’m very far from being a Civil War expert, so I don’t know specifically who’s real nor which incidents are real, beyond such obvious ones as the assassination of Lincoln and the burning of Richmond. But my impression is that the author has done a masterful job of integrating historical fact with her own fiction; almost everything “feels” right. I am, however, slightly puzzled by the characterization of Judah Benjamin, as I can’t recall any hints in the novel that tell us that he was gay, as he was—which of course would never have been discussed explicitly a century and a half ago, but still I expected some innuendos. Maybe the hints were there, as I know I missed some pages: I listened to the audiobook version (expertly narrated by William Dufris), but my audiobook player software was being a bit wonky and occasionally skipped multi-page segments. Fortunately Horn’s narrative contains enough redundancy (in the linguistic sense of the word) that I never had any trouble following what was going on. The story was always engaging enough to keep me listening, and the characters held my interest throughout. But if you are the sort of reader who doesn’t like a book if you don’t find the characters appealing, you might not want to read All Other Nights, as there isn’t a single truly likable character (IMHO).
I have mixed feelings about my next complaint. I have long felt that it’s inappropriate to criticize an author for not writing some other book. Too often reviewers say that the author should have done X or Y, to which my reaction generally is “That would have made it a different book; go and write that book yourself.” But now I can’t help falling into that trap myself. Early on in the story there’s a scene of a seder in New Orleans—the inspiration for the title, of course—and here we are in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Wouldn’t you expect some extended commentary about the irony of Jews’ being slaveholders, of reading about escaping from slavery in the midst of a war being fought over slavery. Yes, there is some brief mention of this irony, but I expected a lot more depth. Even in a work of fiction it seems to me that it should be a major point. (Or was this another place where the audio skipped over some crucial pages?)
So, all in all, a mixed verdict. That goes along with a shout-out to my friend and colleague, Leah Gordon, who recommended this book and predicted correctly that I would like the parts that she found boring and vice versa.