Saturday, April 05, 2008

People of the Book

How can a librarian not like a book that is dedicated simply, "To the librarians"? Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize- winning author of March and Year of Wonders, tells the story of a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, and the people who struggled, lived and died with the book. It's a story of survival, both for the book, and for the people themselves.

Brooks relates the fictionalized story of the actual Sarajevo Haggadah, an illustrated manuscript that tells the story used at the Passover Seder. In her book, an Australian conservator, Hanna Heath, is given the honor of restoring the most famous Haggadah in the world. She's dedicated to the task of restoring the beautiful work, but also longs to know the actual history behind the manuscript. As she carefully examines it, the book begins to reveal its past, through an insect wing, a wine stain, and a white hair. Each clue leads to the story of a person involved in the book. Through the clues, the reader traces the books origins back from Sarajevo, to Vienna, to Venice and the Inquisition, to the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, and to an African Muslim slave.

People of the Book may be the story of a book, but it's also the story of knowledge, linked through time by artists and intellectuals, according to Brooks. Even more than that, it's the story of the people themselves, linked, not only by the book, but by hatred and discrimination. Brooks' conservator, Dr. Hanna Heath, becomes a symbol of all of the people that struggled in order to preserve, and save, the Sarajevo Haggadah. Her own personal life is as filled with conflict as any of the people that lived before her. Like her predecessors, Hanna rose above her own problems to save the Haggadah. Time after time, people struggled against ignorance, hatred and discrimination. At times, they made silent pacts with their own enemies in order to save the book, and save something within themselves.

Geraldine Brooks tells the simple story of a book's history. However, it's also a powerful story of hope, and man's capacity to rise above the differences between cultures and races, and, somehow, find the humanity in each other, despite hatred, war, and disaster.

Geraldine Brooks' website is

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Viking, copyright 2008. ISBN 978067001821 (hardcover), 372p.


Anonymous said...

After having read YEAR OF WONDERS this last month, my afternoon book group will read this for our October meeting. I'm looking forward to it.

Lesa said...

I know it's a while out, but I can't wait to hear what your group thinks, Kay. I'm glad you summarize it on your blog.