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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Recommend Reading: "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book, a novel by Geraldine Brooks, is an interesting read that offers a great deal of opportunity for reflection.

The novel is spun around a real object, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The haggadah is a Jewish religious text used during the Passover sedar. The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illustrated manuscript of the haggadah text created in 14th century Spain. According to Yale University Library, which has a facsimile of the manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah was brought to the former Ottoman Empire by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. In 1894 it was acquired by the Sarajevo Museum.

Sarajevo, as you will recall, was under siege by the Serbs from 1992 until 1996. The Sarajevo Haggadah was almost destroyed during the bombardment, but was saved by museum staff. In her novel, Brooks uses these contemporary facts about the Haggadah as the base camp from which she journeys into its past and then back again.

People of the Book begins in 1996. The Haggadah resurfaces in Sarajevo after the siege ends. The story's protagonist, Australian rare-book expert Hanna Heath, travels there to examine and restore the manuscript. Little is known about the Haggadah's history, and during her examination Heath looks for clues about its past.

Heath finds small things, including an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair. As she investigates each clue and speculates about its origin, in alternating chapters the author goes back in time to tell a story of how, for example, an insect wing got into the Haggadah, and how a wine stain appeared, and so on. The chapters that set forth these fictional, historical flashbacks are wonderful short stories and the most successful part of the book, transporting readers to Sarajevo in 1940, to late-19th-century Vienna, 15th-century Venice, Catalonia during the Spanish Inquisition and lastly to Seville in 1480.

Two downsides to the book. First, Brooks does a bit of direct sermonizing to the effect of 'why can't people just get along', which is unnecessary. The historical flashbacks alone do a great job of showing the evils of intolerance and hatred. Second, with the exception of the opening, the chapters concerning Hanna Heath are not the best bits.

Read People of the Book for the chapters that go back into the past. They are interesting, transporting, and provoke thinking about injustice, intolerance, and the importance of defending individual rights, freedom, and diversity in our communities.

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