Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Review: The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I want to start this review with a quote from the end of the book:

You know I am not a religious man. But Hanna, I have spent many nights, lying awake here in this room, thinking that the Haggadah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.

That being said, imagine your scriptures. Or even your favorite book for that matter. Imagine that your scriptures have been passed down to you from your grandparents grandparents. Imagine that you are an outcast in your country because you cling to the beliefs that are housed in your scriptures. Imagine that people are willing to kill you, just because of your beliefs.

And then imagine the gratitude you would feel if the person down the street put themself in harms way to save you and your scriptures.

A person who shouldn’t even like you, let alone want to save you. A person who you find recognizes that you are a person who has beliefs in the same way that they are person with beliefs and respects that innate similarity. A person who recognizes you are human and that each of us has our sacred records, and that none of us (including our books) deserve to be destroyed because of the beliefs housed in them.

While not exact, this is what Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book is about. A 500-year old Jewish prayer book called a haggadah resurfaces after the Bosnian War in the late 1990’s. A young Jewish scholar is asked to rebind the book. In the process, she discovers artifacts within the book that will take you back in time to tell the story of the people who have, at great harm to themselves, sacrificed much to protect the book.

The stories are heartbreaking, (because who really wants to read a happy book?). The time periods covered include Sarajevo during World Ware II, Vienna during the 1890’s, and several locations in Venice and Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. In each case, individuals find themselves unable to destroy the haggadah, and their possession adds to the mystery and beauty of the book.

The best part about People of the Book? While the many of the stories are fictionalized, there really is a Sarajevo Haggadah. Geraldine Brooks has created stories about who could have painted the pages, and who wrote out the text, and who spilt wine on the pages, but her subject matter is anything but imaginary. The manuscript was smuggled out of a museum during WWII by a Muslim librarian. He gave it to another Muslim who hid it inside a home or a mosque during the war. Then it was kept in an underground vault during the Bosnian War to protect it from the constant shelling (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Depictions from the Sarajevo Haggadah of Moses and the Burning Bush and of Aaron's Staff.

The history of the Sarajevo Haggadah and the book The People of the Book is so inspiring to me. It gives me hope to think that in this crazy, violent world, there are real accounts of people who are willing to do the right thing, even when it will cost them dearly. Which brings me back to the quote I shared above. What a wonderful world it would be if we could all look past what makes us different and celebrate those things that unite us: books and love and friendship and family and faith. Because what else really matters?


Lucy said...

Sounds really interesting. I'll put it on my list!