Have You Read?: Book shows that history doesn’t have to be boring
August 5, 2008
Author Geraldine Brooks’ historical novel “People of the Book” is loosely based on a real book, “The Sarajevo Haggadah.” The novel is a fictionalized account of how that book survived and the vulnerability of culture and ideas.
The main character, Dr. Hanna Heath, is a book conservator. The United Nations sends her to war-torn Sarajevo in 1996 to conserve an extremely rare book, “The Sarajevo Haggadah.” There, she meets and becomes involved with Dr. Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the national museum. As Hanna examines the book, clues appear to its history. A feather, a wine stain and salt crystals become points of departure for stories about the creation of the book and those who preserved it through the centuries. These beautiful, well-researched tales form the core of the book.
The tales go back in time from a young Jewish girl, who, with the help of a Muslim family, saves the book from the Nazis. In late 19th-century Vienna, the book survives anti-Semitic sentiment, and in 1609, a priest in Venice saves the book from burning during the Inquisition. In Spain, the book’s creator sees his family tortured and killed. And we learn about an emir’s daughter who creates the incredible illustrations that illuminate the book.
As Hanna’s research progresses, the reader learns more about her personal life. The book explores the distance between Hanna and her mother, and portrays realistically what ensues between the two. And as another character tells Hanna: “Not all stories have happy endings.” At times, this relationship seems tacked onto the core story about the “Haggadah,” but it really explores Hanna’s character and relationship to her real love – her work as a conservator. Intertwined with Hanna’s story is a suspenseful plot twist that helps tie together all the stories of the “Haggadah’s” survival.
In the preface, the author quotes a line from Heinrich Heine: “There, where one burns books, one in the end burns men.”
“People of the Book,” like all good historical fiction, is more than a recounting of known facts; it is an intense tale of survival and the power of culture and ideas.
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“People of the Book” and many other historical novels can be found at the Zephyr Cove Library, 233 Warrior Way. For more information, call the library at (775) 588-6411, or visit douglas.lib.nv.us.
– Dan Doyle is senior library technician at the Douglas County Public Library.