People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks


I knew I would love the book written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of March.  This is the fictionalized story of an actual artifact, the Sarajevo Haggadah (Jewish religious text that instructs on the Passover Seder), that was unusual in that it is illustrated, was created in medieval Spain, and has survived.   It is known that it was saved from destruction twice in recent years; in 1940 a Moslem scholar smuggled it out of the museum to a safe hiding place for the duration of the Nazi years, and during the Serbian shelling of Sarajevo, it was put in a bank vault by a Moslem librarian. 

The novel fills in the story of its creation in Spain at the time of convivencia when the Christians, Jews, and Moslems lived in relative harmony, then its departure, along with the Arabs and the Jews, when it goes first to Tarragona, then to Venice, its time in Vienna in 1894 when its cover was replaced, and eventually to Bosnia where it survived the Nazis and the war with the Serbs.  Tying these dramas together is the modern day Australian book conservator (Hanna) whose observations of the book are explained in each of the periods of its existence.   For example Hanna found an insect’s wing trapped in the binding of the book and learned the insect only occurred in high elevation.  We learn in the chapter about the haggadah’s escape from the Nazis that it was taken to a village high in the mountains where it was hidden in the library of a mosque. 

Each time we reach into the past, the lives of those connected to the book are marked by ethnic strife.  The essential message of the People of the Book is found in a conversation between Hanna and an old friend helping her with the book.  He says, "…the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again.  Think about it.  You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along:  creative, prosperous.  Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ — it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society."

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