"The Jewish Confederates" by Robert N. Rosen; Barbara Kingsolver's novel, "Prodigal Summer" 

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The Prussian Jew Adolph Proskauer fled his homeland in 1848, then landed in the United States. Like so many 19th-century Jews, he was seeking a place where he would be treated as an equal citizen. He found it in Mobile, Ala. By 1861, he was serving in the Confederate Army, and before the war ended he had been promoted to the rank of major. A Jew serving in the Confederate Army? It seems strange to hear that today. But it wouldn't have seemed unusual to Southerners in the 1860's. Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans were the homes of many prominent Jews. They owned businesses, practiced law, and served as congressmen and senators. They also were ardent Confederates who were as willing as any Anglo-Saxon Christian to give their lives in defense of their country. "The Jewish Confederates" by Robert N. Rosen (University of South Carolina Press, $39.95) sheds light on a much-neglected topic: Jewish participation in the Confederate Army and government. While there were only about 25,000 Jews in the South at the time, these fierce defenders of states' rights played a major role in the Civil War. A central figure who receives an in-depth treatment in Rosen's book is Confederate presidential cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin, a Louisiana senator who resigned from the U.S. Congress so that he could serve his beloved homeland. As secretary of state he worked closely with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and was greatly admired by the people of the South. During the war's final days, he and Davis plotted and issued the final orders of the failing republic as they darted away from Union soldiers who were anxious to arrest them. Benjamin possessed insight that was rare in Confederate political leaders. He knew that the war would be a long one, so he urged the government to sell cotton to England to raise money for arms and munitions. The idea was ridiculed at the time by men who foresaw a swift and easy victory. While Benjamin was handling the affairs of state, thousands of Jewish men were facing fire on the battlefield. Many distinguished themselves and all were men who chose to enlist. The paradox of a people whose central story was an escape from bondage volunteering to fight for slave states puzzles the contemporary mind. But 19th-century Jews saw duty to the homeland as sacred. They were also treated far better in their new country than the in places they had fled from in Europe. Furthermore, the Southern states were far more hospitable to Jews than the Northern states and much of the most virulent anti-Semitism flowed from Northern political leaders and journalists. Rosen weaves the stories of numerous Jewish Confederates into a captivating tale with a common theme. Those who enjoy a well-written book with an unusual angle will learn a great deal from "The Jewish Confederates." — John Toivonen Nature's Characters
Flora and fauna, sentimentality and spirituality, environment and evolution weave their paths through Appalachia one summer in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, "Prodigal Summer" (HarperCollins, $26). The book is designed as a tapestry, and Kingsolver allows three separate life stories to touch briefly in the honeysuckle air of western Virginia, before providing each character with an individual destiny. The isolated mountain biologist, the widowed debt-ridden farm wife and the grumpy old-school teacher all connect with some aspect of the natural world quite easily, but cannot adapt readily to the few individuals in their lives. A thoughtful, lyrical portrayal of the precarious balance between man and nature, "Prodigal Summer" takes Kingsolver down a different, quiet path where " solitude is a human presumption," and "every human step is thunder to beatle life underfoot." — Beth Morelli Heads-up:
Bulletin for John LeCarré fans: His new book, "The Constant Gardner" (Simon & Schuster $28) has been published this week. Again, apparently, he takes on amoral global criminals.

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