Geraldine Brooks is an accomplished writer with a broad repertoire. She wrote for The Wall Street Journal as a foreign correspondent, reporting from Bosnia, Somalia, and other locations of conflict. Her observations as a journalist formed the background for two books about current international issues. More recently, she made a name for herself with two novels of historical fiction. One of these, a Civil War novel entitled March, received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for 2006.
People of the Book is based on the remarkable survival of a fifteenth century Jewish haggadah, a manuscript that tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, to be used at the annual Passover celebration. This book, with its colorful illustrations, somehow survived the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church’s book burnings in Italy, looting by German troops during World War II, and the Serbian-Bosnian civil war in the 1990’s. While Brooks was a correspondent in Sarajevo, Bosnia, she heard the dramatic, true story of the Muslim librarian who put himself into personal danger to rescue the book from destruction. She was inspired to write an imaginative account of the people who might have been involved in creating and preserving this cultural treasure through five centuries of human history.
The story begins in 1996 in Sarajevo, shortly after U.N. troops had brought an end to the three-year Serbian siege of the city. Hanna Heath, a feisty, young Australian woman who is an expert in preservation of medieval manuscripts, has been called in to prepare the haggadah for a public exposition. Hanna is picked up at the Sarajevo airport by a U.N. armored car and is driven to the bank where the manuscript was hidden in a vault when Serbians were shelling the city. Brooks gives a vivid description of the destruction of the once-beautiful city as seen through Hanna’s eyes: “We passed an apartment block that looked like the dollhouse I’d had as a girl, where the entire front wall lifted off to reveal the rooms within. In this block, the wall had been peeled away by an explosion . . . . As we sped by, I realized that people were somehow still living there, their only protection a few sheets of plastic billowing in the wind.”
At the bank, Hanna is introduced to Ozren Karaman, the chief librarian at the Bosnian National Museum. During the Serbian bombardment, he personally had carried various valuable objects, including the haggadah, from the museum to the bank for storage. Karaman symbolizes the human suffering of civilians in wartime, his wife having been killed by a sniper and his son left in a coma because of a brain injury. Hanna works for several days on the technical aspect of repairing the manuscript, but she becomes fascinated by several unusual clues that give hints where the book may have been during its five-hundred-year history. Among the pages she finds a white hair, an insect wing, a reddish stain, and the signature of an Italian book censor, and she notes that the clasp to hold the pages together is missing. Each clue leads to a fictional episode in the history of the book.
The first episode takes place in 1940 after German troops had marched into Sarajevo. General Faber, the Nazi commandant, had orders to cleanse the city of Jews and Serbs by deporting them to labor camps. Lola, a teenage Jewish girl who escapes by wearing a Muslim headscarf that hides her face, is rescued by Serif Kamal and his wife, who pretend that she is their family servant. Serif works at the National Museum, where the haggadah is one of its most valuable treasures. General Faber wants to confiscate the book for himself, but the museum director tricks him into thinking that the museum no longer has it. Serif then carries the manuscript to a nearby village, where a butterfly wing accidentally is caught between its pages. Serif finds a perfect hiding place for the haggadah...