Here’s a little secret: I have a thing about reading narratives about the Donner Party. Yep. It’s creepy, but it’s also true and you can’t beat them for pure American creepy real life drama (with a mildly happy ending).
Given my penchant for this topic (I love History Channel /PBS documentaries on this subject, too), you can imagine my glee at receiving a copy of Daniel James Brown’s new book, The Indifferent Stars Above. The William Morrow imprint of Harper Collins sent me an uncorrected proof of this new book to review via Library Thing. I am VERY grateful. It’s all I can do not to dive into it immediately, but I’m in the middle of T.C. Boyle’s, The Women, and loving it so I must finish it before I throw myself in with the Donners.
Ethan Rarick’s 2008 book , Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, has been on my TBR list for a while but I haven’t been able to find a copy to read– even my library doesn’t have it. Back in the late 1990’s Doris Betts did a fabulous job combining paranormal aspects of the Donner story with modern day quest for identity in her novel, Heading West. I should re-read Betts’ book. She’s a fabulous writer and I’ve lost track of her. But, that’s a digression.
Donner books, like books on Salem & witchcraft are best savored months (or years) apart. Too much of a topic like that and I can’t enjoy each book distinctly. I begin to compare the books in ways that don’t allow the writer’s a fair chance to show me what they know and to shed new light on the story. I want to ask new questions and hear new perspectives when I read about this part of our nation’s history so I need to spread these fictionalized accounts out amongst other reading. At least with this new entry into thge category I know I have something I can look forward to reading.
I was determined to finish this book despite a slow start so I forged ahead and completed it. I don’t often do that– if I don’t ‘feel’ the book immediately I usually stop. This time, however, I was really afraid I was the problem and to some extent I think that remains true. I just wasn’t as into the subject (Civil War espionage from the perspective of a Jewish soldier from NYC) as I could have been. I resisted Horn’s narrative in ways and didn’t allow myself to go with the flow of the book.
This is disappointing because I think All Other Nights is a genuinely good and compelling read, but perhaps just not for me. I’ll be analyzing why that is for a long time. It’s got the elements that should, and probably will, grab anyone else who picks this up– it’s an historical novel of the civil war but the protagonist is a Jewish Union soldier who must go undercover in the deep South to marry a Confederate female spy. Surprisingly it was the female characters that I didn’t really ‘get’ in the book. They were a strange combination of vapid Southern Belles and Jewish Scarlett O’Haras. Very odd. I don’t know enough about American Judaism in this period and region to know if they are really plausible.
What I did connect with, however, was the anti-Judiasm that was so prevelant in the South at that time as well as the ways in which prejudice reared its head within the military. I had no ideas Jews were expelled from American towns during the Civil War. That alone should have make this compelling reading for everyone. At this point in our country’s history I think many readers know about and respect the service of african american civil war combatants, but I know I had never considered the role Jews might have played in the Civil War.
Anti-Judiasm gets overlooked or trivialized today in ways that are inexcusable. This book would definitely be a fascinating starting point to discuss religion, ethnicity, and war. In the United States we pride ourselves on our heritage as a “melting pot” — but this book forces the reader to wrestle with questions of identity and allegience. Which is more compelling– Religious identity? Family connection? Love? Ethnicity? Regional heritage? Politics? I appreciate Horn’s book for allowing me to consider these questions.