What was the health and hygienic status of the characters in Geraldine Brooks' The People of the Book? What themes are found in the book through the characters' health and hygienic statuses?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is most definitely a complex and culturally rich story. The story essentially traces the creation and history of the ancient Jewish Haggadah that Hanna Heath is restoring. The book starts out being set during the Bosnian Civil War of the mid-90s, but history is traced throughout the book all the way back to the middle ages, especially focusing on Jewish persecutions. Since the book is set during a civil war of the mid-90s, but the  story carries all the way back to the middle ages, the health and hygiene of the people within the book vary greatly. For one thing, the protagonist Hanna Heath, as a proclaimed book conservationist from Australia and with family connections in Vienna, is fairly well off. However, she is brought to war-torn Sarajevo to restore the truly existing Sarajevo Haggadah. Sarajevo is comprised of Muslims, Christians, and Jews that were living peacefully until the breakout of the war. The war took a huge tole on civilians, leading to even civilian massacres, mass rape, and even ethnic genocide. Hence, we can say that the state of health and hygiene of the individuals in Sarajevo who had survived the war up to the point that Hanna arrives during a cease fire were very poor indeed. People were living in underground shelters, and many were injured. Many even died from "harsh living conditions, hunger, cold, illness or other accidents" ("Bosnian War").
 
The story progresses as Hanna investigates the clues she finds within the book pertaining to the book's history. As the book progresses, the story takes us to other locations and other tragic moments in history, such as the Holocaust initiated by the Nazis during World War II. Hanna's discovery in the pages of the Haggadah of the wing of a butterfly that can only be found in high elevations moves the story to Lola, a Jew from Sarajevo during the 1940s who joins the resistance movement against the Nazis that is forming and hiding out in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. Again, since the story is focusing on another moment of ethnic genocide and war, the characters like Lola again suffer the health and hygiene problems characteristic of a war-torn society. Lola spends the winter hiding up in the mountains, specifically the Dinaric Alps that surround Bosnia, and the Dinaric Alps have a snowy climate during the winter. Hence, Lola survived a very cold, harsh and probably malnourished winter. Therefore, as far as Lola's character goes, she too suffered poor health and hygienic conditions. What's more all who suffered the war also suffered poor health and hygienic conditions.

Another clue helps the story to regress back to Venice in 1609, the time of the Catholic Inquisition. The Catholic Inquisition was supposed to be a means for the Catholic Church to purge itself of heretics, such as the Protestants who were emerging as a result of the Protestant Reformation; however, the Inquisition led to the persecution of many religious groups that differed in belief from the Catholics, such as the Muslims and Jews, especially in Spain ("Inquisition"). In 1609, the story introduces us to a rich Jewess named Reyna de Serena who is pretending to be Catholic to avoid persecution, but now wants to escape Venice. She gives the Haggadah she owns to a rabbi to give to a Catholic priest for safe keeping. Once the Haggadah is in the priest's possession, he suddenly remembers that his own parents had been arrested for being Jewish, making him truly Jewish and masquerading as a Catholic to also escape persecution. Since he is the priest responsible for deciding what books should be burned as heretical and what should be spared, he signs his name to protect the book. Hence, since the characters are again at a moment in history in which there was tremendous upheaval and religious persecution, we again know that the characters again suffered the poor health and hygiene that are characteristic of tragic moments like these. We especially see the truth of their suffering when, as the rabbi is contemplating the beauty and value of the Haggadah, especially noting how rich someone would have to be to be able to pay for such gold and silver leafing, he next reflects on how the Jews now live like beggars all over the world, as we see in the lines:

Did they live like princes, these Jews? They must have done, to afford such an amount of gold and silver leaf ... And now, their descendants wandered destitute over the face of the earth, looking for any safe place that would allow them to lay down their heads in peace. (181)

Hence, all of the characters throughout People of the Book suffered moments of war, tragic upheaval, and religious persecution, leading to poor health and hygiene, and general suffering. By tracing the events the characters suffered through, especially noting the fact that the events revolved around war and religious persecution, we can see the common themes within the book are war, upheaval, suffering, and religious persecution, specifically the persecution the Jews have suffered throughout the ages. 

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