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  1. Book ImageAll Other Nights: A Novel

    Dara Horn

    “Slam-bang... superb... masterful... gripping... marvelous.”—Washington Post

An Interview with Dara Horn

What attracted you to the idea of setting a book in the Civil War? 

I think that every historical novel is really much more about the time in which it is written than the time in which it takes place, and that is very true for this book. The Civil War attracted me because of how polarized America has become in the past decade, and because of how impossible it has become even to have a conversation about current events without knowing in advance what the other person believes. The divide between conservatives and liberals, or “red states” and “blue states,” really does go back to the Civil War in so many ways; the “red states” and “blue states” tend to follow the Mason-Dixon line and its legacies.

In 2002, after my first novel was published, I was invited to speak in New Orleans, and while I was there, I came across an old Jewish cemetery. I was surprised to see that the graves went back to the early 1800s. When I read more about it, I discovered that New Orleans in the nineteenth century had the largest American Jewish population after New York. I began reading about Jewish communities during the Civil War and discovered a wealth of material, and what most intrigued me was how these communities responded to the war. Generally they did so with a passionate patriotism, regardless of which side they lived on. But as a national community, their response was a bit unusual. Many American religious denominations split at the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are “Southern” Baptists or “Southern” Methodists. But while there were already national Jewish organizations in America by then, such as B’nai Brith, none of them split during the Civil War. One could claim that this was due to the Jewish community’s small size (about 130,000 Jews lived in America in 1860), but I think there was also a more profound reason. Today it is common for Americans to have relatives around the country, but in the nineteenth century this was comparably rare—except among American Jews, who, because they were more often running businesses than running farms, were more likely to live mobile lives and to have relatives and business contacts in other parts of the country. This made them somewhat more likely than other Americans to appreciate the other side’s point of view.

It was this tension between the need to prove one’s loyalty to one’s home and a sense of closeness to people on the other side that I found fascinating. Civil War fiction is usually written from an uncompromising point of view—most often sympathetic to the South. I wanted to write something that showed the cruelty and the humanity of both sides, and in the Jewish community of the time I found a way to express it.

Do you think of yourself as someone with strong political views? 

I am a political moderate, which makes me an endangered species. I am generally able to disagree with someone’s point of view without also believing that they are the incarnation of evil. For this reason I’m particularly fascinated by situations where two sides demonize each other—especially when there is a certain legitimacy to each side. To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Civil War is that most people who fought and died for the South didn’t own slaves. Instead they saw themselves as defending their homes and defending an agrarian, traditionalist, independence-minded culture that they rightly saw as threatened by the way industry and technology had already changed the North. Most novels about the Civil War take a very particular approach to who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are, whether they are novels nostalgic for the old South or novels that explore the evils of slavery. In my writing, I am more drawn to situations where the boundaries between good and evil don’t run between people, but within them.

Your previous novels were quite openly engaged with the theological dimension of religion. Does that have any role in this book?

It’s true that the supernatural is explicit in my previous books in a way that isn’t apparent in this novel. But I do feel that there is a theological dimension to the book in the ethical dilemmas the characters confront and in the ways the characters change. The story of Jacob Rappaport, the Union spy who is the book’s main character, was inspired by several actual spies from the period, but I also modeled him on the patriarch Jacob from the book of Genesis. Many of the events in Jacob Rappaport’s life (his flight from his father’s house to his uncle’s house, his involvement with a set of deceptive sisters, and his life-altering injury, to name just a few) are taken from the biblical Jacob’s story, following that figure’s development from a liar, pushover, and all-around moral degenerate into a fully formed moral human being worthy of the title of father. The book’s title, All Other Nights, refers to the Passover liturgy, when the youngest person present asks the question “How is this night different from all other nights?” But the question behind that question is more difficult to answer: Are we—or do we have to be—the same people from one night to the next? Do people ever really change? Or, to put it in religious terms, is repentance possible?

Nineteenth-century Americans often referred to God as “Providence,” suggesting not only a provider but also an arbiter of destiny. There are a number of places in this book where characters see the events around them as directed by “Providence”—and in more than one instance, they turn out to be demonstrably wrong about the impact of those events. To me, the most powerful theological notion is the idea of human free will, the awesome responsibility that people have for their own choices. The crimes and betrayals committed by the characters in this novel are unforgivable, but these characters cannot continue their lives without finding some way to atone for what they have done. The characters often have opportunities to revisit these crimes, when they find themselves confronted once more with similar choices to make. Then they have to decide whether they are capable of being different people tonight than they were in the past.

What lies behind your decision to mix genuine historical figures and fictional characters in your work, rather than writing “pure” history or “pure” fiction? 

The kind of fiction I tend to like best is usually the kind rooted in reality, allowing the reader to imagine his or her way into a life lived by someone else. One particularly voyeuristic way to achieve this is to write about someone who actually existed. In some ways, these real-life characters become a kind of historical detail in the book, like riding crops and gas lamps, with the effect of making the story’s setting more vivid and making the invented characters seem all the more real in the process.

But as an academic with a tremendous respect for the unanswerable questions in historical research, I am also terribly cautious about the way I include real people in fiction. I’ve usually avoided writing from the point of view of a historical figure, for instance, because I think it would be very arrogant to pretend to know the thoughts of someone who really did once have his own thoughts and consciousness. Instead I introduce these people through the fictional characters who encounter them, and much of what comes through of these figures’ personalities is filtered through a fictional character’s point of view—just as our view of these real people is colored by our own perspectives when we try to learn about their lives from historical sources. The challenge of trying to bring these people to life in fiction, in ways that would be impossible if I were writing conventional history, is to serve the story while trying to be fair to the reality of their lives.

While many of the characters in the book are inspired by real historical figures, only three are “borrowed” from history with the known details of their real lives left intact: Judah Benjamin (the Confederate secretary of state), Edwin Booth (a renowned New York actor who was the brother of Lincoln’s assassin), and John Surratt (a Confederate courier who was arrested for his alleged involvement in Lincoln’s murder, though he avoided conviction). There is some security in depicting people long dead, but less than you’d expect. My previous novel, The World to Come, also featured real-life figures: the painter Marc Chagall and the Yiddish writer Der Nister, both safely dead. But that is when I discovered the phenomenon of the Angry Heir. (Chagall’s granddaughter liked the book, though I did hear from others who were less thrilled.) I look forward to hearing from more enraged descendants this time, especially those who have had more than a century for their grievances to fester. I hope they’ll believe me that I meant no disrespect.

There is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the ability or inability to say no. What got you thinking about that? 

I was interested in exploring the ways in which freedom is a mental rather than a physical state. One character in the book, Caleb Johnson, is a slave who secretly works for the North as an agent for the Legal League, a network of African American spies that maintained an ancillary underground railroad for both black and white agents employed by the Northern government. (The Legal League really did exist, and I based Caleb’s character in part on John Scobell, a renowned African American spy who posed as a slave, as well as on other African American agents from the period.) When Caleb takes Jacob in at one point in the novel, it becomes clear that Caleb has made his own choices about what to devote himself to, and as a result he is far more of a free person than Jacob is. Throughout the book, Jacob makes choices without realizing that all along he had the freedom to do otherwise.

People frequently give up their mental liberty in exchange for any number of things—pride, status, ambition, love, or any other desire—or simply to fulfill the expectations of others, often without being aware of what they have lost. Freedom isn’t about having no obligations, but about the ability to choose one’s obligations.

You wrote your dedication to your children as “the cause.” Given that this novel has strong political themes and for each side the cause is political, it raises the question: If our children are the only cause, or a given cause is held as emotionally close as our children, can anything ever be achieved, or resolved, in politics? 

In the book, one of the characters claims that “raising children is one of the only things one can do with one’s life” because, as he puts it, “You can devote yourself to a cause, but what cause could be worth more than a child?” I do think that devotion to a cause is something that only people without children usually have the luxury of expressing. People who are parents have something else in their lives that will almost always matter more to them. But people with children are also more likely to have something else that people without children are somewhat less likely to have, which is empathy for other people’s children. Large social changes tend to happen only when enough people see the problem at hand as something that affects their own children—or when enough people are motivated to care about other people’s children.

What were the particular satisfactions (or frustrations) of writing this novel? 

My two previous novels were written from many different perspectives, with scenes taking place at various points in history and never in chronological order. For me this was always an easier way to write a book—to follow whichever character’s point of view was most intriguing or use whatever historical period seemed most relevant to the themes of the story that emerged. As I began writing this book, though, I wondered if it would be possible for me to write a more traditionally structured novel: to write from just one character’s point of view, with the events happening chronologically. That is, with no tricks.

Many contemporary novels (aspects of my previous books included) tend to rely on tricks—on jumping around in time or perspective, or telling stories in a manner far more complicated than is necessary. This can be valuable, but only to a point. Ultimately the reader needs a story and characters worth caring about for their own sake, and not merely for the styles or techniques used to present them. It was very refreshing for me to write this book almost as a nineteenth-century novel, complete with all the shameless action-adventure plot twists that nineteenth-century readers would have expected—the book includes a shoot-out at a wedding, a kidnapping plot, a prison break (or three), and so on. It was a lot of fun, but it also forced me to focus on what matters most in writing a novel: making the plot and the characters compelling.

There are several different kinds of codes and puzzles in the book—is that a particular fascination for you?

The great thing about Civil War ciphers and codes, for the general reader, is that they are on a human scale. After the 1930s, military codes became machine-generated, but ciphers prior to that were really just created by clever people, and were breakable by clever people too. That makes them a lot more fun for readers who don’t have a supercomputer in their garage.

The codes used by the North and the South are especially fun in this way. The Northern ciphers changed continuously but were always based on a word-reordering system, where the words of a message were restructured according to particular patterns and then certain crucial words were replaced with substitutes. This makes the coded messages seem easy to translate, but they are actually quite difficult to crack. The main Southern cipher was based on a two-layered alphabet substitution system—which makes the coded messages look completely indecipherable, but which is actually quite easy to break once you know how the letters are being substituted. (There are more detailed explanations of both ciphers given in this guide.)

Some of the codes in the book are simply there for nonhistorical fun. Rose, the youngest of the spy sisters, speaks in palindromes and anagrams, a talent she uses when ciphering real messages. These codes and puzzles interest me because people almost always speak in some sort of code. In the novel and in real life, an enormous percentage of daily conversation consists of both outward and hidden meanings, and the way something is said is almost always more important that the words themselves.

Your first two books ranged around the world, from suburban New Jersey to Holland to the Soviet Union to Vietnam. This one is set purely in the United States. Do you have an itch to travel again? If so, where might you take us in your next novel? 

I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot in my life; I’ve been to about fifty countries around the world, and that is something that has deeply influenced my novels. Now that I have three children aged three and under, I spend a lot more time closer to home. But I feel lucky to be able to draw from my experiences in other countries and cultures, even while writing a book set in my native country—because while this book takes place in America, it is a very different America from the one that anyone alive today has ever lived in. I don’t know where my next book might go—at the moment I’ve only written the first fifty pages, which I’m sure to throw away—but it will likely involve another country, even if it’s only this country in the past.

A Note on Codes and Ciphers

The Union Cipher System

Union Cipher

The cipher used by the Union during the Civil War worked through a system of routing columns. The code went through several evolutions between 1861 and 1865. In the cipher’s most developed state, the first word of a ciphered message was a key word, indicating the number of columns and lines into which the subsequent words needed to be arranged as well as the route for reading them correctly. Meaningless words were used to complete columns or rows. Substitute words were used for terms such as state, city, and river names, names of officers or leaders on either side, hours of the day, military expressions, and later for common phrases. The key words and substitute words were initially few enough in number to fit on a small card or to be committed to memory. As the war progressed and the cipher became more complicated, twelve pages’ worth of key words were used, along with more than sixteen hundred substitute words. The cipher was contained in a booklet whose listings were themselves rather convoluted and obscure, and the absence of instructions in the booklet made it useless to any enemy who might find it. The example here uses Cipher Number 9, the version used starting in January 1863.

The first word in the ciphered message, “WISE,” indicates that the words have been arranged in six columns of nine lines each, and that the route for reading them correctly is up the third column, down the second, up the fourth, down the fifth, up the first, and then down the sixth. Here are the words rearranged according to this route, with substitute words decoded. (The last two words, “Dara” and “Horn,” are of course meaningless.)

Union Cipher

While the use of normal words makes this code seem easier to crack than the alphabetically based Confederate code, it was in fact far more difficult to decipher and far more efficient than the Southern one. Although the cipher’s coding booklet fell into enemy hands on several occasions, and although many message were intercepted, the Confederates never managed to decipher any version of this code. In fact, Southern desperation to decode this cipher was so intense that intercepted Northern messages were published in Southern newspapers, with an appeal to the public to try to crack the code. No one ever did.

The Confederate Cipher System

Confederate Cipher

While several local ciphers were used on a small scale in the South, the primary cipher used by the Confederacy during the Civil War was the Vigenère Tableau, also called the Vicksburg Square. It was a polyalphabetic substitution system, with a key phrase providing an additional layer of encryption. Messages were ciphered and deciphered using the “square,” a table that arranged the English alphabet horizontally and vertically along the top and left-hand side, with alphabets listed after each letter like this:

Confederate Cipher

Much to the South’s detriment, only three key phrases were used with this square throughout the war: “complete victory,” “Manchester Bluff,” and “come retribution.” (The last of these was in fact not used until the final months of the war, though it appears earlier in the novel.) Messages were ciphered by lining up the letters of each word with the letters of the key phrase. One then finds the junction between the message’s letter and the key phrase’s letter on the Square, and records the letter at their junction, as follows:

Confederate Cipher

Deciphering the message entailed finding the letter of the key phrase on the top of the square, tracing down the column to reach the cipher letter, and then tracing along the row to the left-most column to find the message letter. Some agents eased this process by separating words with commas or other punctuation—a choice that ultimately made the code much easier to crack when such messages fell into enemy hands.

Despite the South’s distinct advantage in many matters of espionage during the Civil War, this cipher system proved to be inefficient and often ineffective, since the slightest error (which anyone trying it will find difficult to avoid) can render a message illegible. One Confederate major, after trying for twelve hours to decipher a message containing an error, actually rode his horse around the Union formations on the battlefield to reach the general who had sent the message and ask him in person what he was trying to say. Meanwhile, the Union had assembled a team of three very young and very talented young men—known in Washington as the “Sacred Three” for the value of their service—who managed through pure brainpower to crack the South’s three key phrases and thereby decipher Southern messages.

Sources: William R. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States (1882); David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing (1967).

Discussion Questions

  1. The title of this novel, All Other Nights, is in the author’s view also a question: Are we the same people from one night to the next? If not, how are we accountable for our actions in the past? If so, how is it possible to change?
  2. Jacob is twice presented with opportunities to potentially save President Lincoln’s life, each involving great personal cost. Does he do the right thing?
  3. How do the themes of escape and freedom from bondage (as celebrated in the Passover feast) play out in the book?
  4. What is the role of deception in the novel? What are the different motivations for deception, and can any of them be good? What are the consequences, both for the deceiver and for the deceived?
  5. Palindromes have a playful role in the book among the spy sisters’ secret codes, but do they also play a serious one? Many events in the book are repeated (an encounter in a cemetery, a prisoner’s unexpected release, a choice regarding a spouse), but with different outcomes. Is there a way in which the book itself can be read as a palindrome? What might this pattern suggest about the characters’ control over their circumstances?
  6. Theater and performance come up many times in the novel, including Jeannie’s stage acts, Edwin Booth’s portrayal of Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Jacob’s role as a secret agent. There is also an element of performance in Judah Benjamin’s detachment and courier John Surratt’s swagger, among many other characters’ traits. Are there any characters in the book whose motivations are completely pure? What is the price of honesty for the people in this novel? Is it possible to be true to oneself when one is forced to choose a side?
  7. Slavery plays an important thematic role in the novel, explicitly in the circumstances of African Americans at the time of the Civil War as well as in other forms of interpersonal exploitation. How are people bought and sold in the book, and what form does freedom take?
  8. Relationships between parents and children are pivotal to the story in All Other Nights, particularly for the fathers of Jacob and Jeannie. What do these two fathers—one an immigrant and the other the son of one—reveal about their priorities and dreams for their children?
  9. What is ultimately more important in this novel: family values or a search for self?
  10. The author has suggested that historical fiction tends to address the time in which it is written much more than it addresses the past. Do you see parallels between the conflicts presented in this book and conflicts in American life today? How would you describe them? Which side are you on, and can you say anything good about the other side?
  11. What makes someone an American in this novel? Is it birth? Ancestry? Ownership of property? Personal freedoms? The respect of others? What is patriotism for these characters?
  12. Where do Jacob’s loyalties lie, and is it possible to rank them in order? Where are your own deepest loyalties? Is there a difference between your loyalties as an individual and your loyalties as a member of an ethnic, religious, regional, national, or other kind of group? What do you do when they clash?
  13. What do you think most deserves our personal loyalty? Our collective loyalty?
  14. What does it mean to be able to say no?

About Dara Horn

Dara Horn is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and one of Granta’s Best American Novelists. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Books by Dara Horn

  1. Book CoverAll Other Nights: A Novel

    “Slam-bang... superb... masterful... gripping... marvelous.”—Washington PostMore

  2. Book CoverEternal Life: A Novel

    What would it really mean to live forever?More

  3. Book CoverA Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel

    The incomparable Dara Horn returns with a spellbinding novel of how technology changes memory and how memory shapes the soul.More