People of the Book Summary

Extended Summary

Sarajevo and Vienna, Spring 1996

At one time, Sarajevo had been a close-knit, modern enclave of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. But in 1996, the city is engulfed in civil war. Hanna Heath is a book conservator who arrives in Sarajevo during a ceasefire in the Bosnian Civil War. Every step she takes is watched over by designated United Nations and local army officials. She has never been in a war zone before and is a bit intimidated.

Her tensions are somewhat eased when she is presented with the ancient Jewish Haggadah. The Haggadah had recently been rediscovered and the Sarajevo community wanted to display the book as a symbol of the city’s own survival and its multicultural and multi-religious ideal. Hannah’s task is to restore the holy book to its original state. She carefully turns the pages of this illustrated text and is amazed by what she sees. The more she examines the book, the more fascinated she becomes by its history. She wonders why Amitai Yomtov, the greatest book conservator in the world, has offered her the chance to do this work. The reason is that Amitai is an Israeli. Because of the political environment in Bosnia and in the Middle East, Amitai thought it best not to become involved.

As she works, Hanna collects clues about the book’s history. It is not all work for Hannah, though.  She has an affair with Ozren Karaman director of the Sarajevo Museum. Although the two of them sleep together on a number of occasions, by the time Hanna has completed the restoration of the Haggadah, Ozren has turned away from her. His ailing son, who remains in a coma after a bullet pierced his skull, distracts him. He refuses her help when Hanna suggests that her mother, a world-famous neurosurgeon, look into his son’s case. Hanna steals the boy’s medical files anyway before leaving Sarajevo for Vienna.

In Vienna, Hanna meets with Amalie Sutter, an entomologist. Hanna gives Amalie the insect wing that she found in the binding of the Haggadah. Amalie tells her that it is a wing from a butterfly that is found only in high elevations.

Sarajevo, 1940

The story is now told through the character Lola, a Jewish teenager living in Sarajevo at the time of the Nazi invasion of World War II. Lola’s family is taken away and Lola goes into the mountains to join the resistance movement. After spending the winter in the mountains, Lola returns to Sarajevo and is saved by a Muslim family, Stela and Serif Kamal. Serif is a scholar. He is concerned about the Sarajevo Haggadah when the Nazis threaten to burn all the books.  Serif takes the book to a friend in the mountains.

Vienna, Spring 1996

Hanna meets with her old teacher, Werner Heinrich. He arranges for her to work with Frau Zweig, a department head at the National Museum. From Frau Zweig, Hanna gains information about the Haggadah’s missing silver binder clips.

Vienna, 1894

The story reverts to 1894.  Dr. Franz Hirschfeldt and Herr Mittl come together to tell the story of the missing silver clips. Dr. Hirschfeldt is treating Mittl for syphilis. Mittl, a book binder, is working on the Haggadah. Hirschfeldt tells Mittl there is a cure for syphilis, but it costs a lot of money. Mittl gives the silver clips to Hirschfeldt to pay for the treatment.

Boston, 1996

Back in modern Boston, Hanna asks Razmus Kanaha to analyze the red stain on one of the pages of the Haggadah. Raz tells her that the...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear