Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
Hanna Heath has cultivated a life of exquisite detachment. Raised by an aloof
and often absent mother, she has eschewed any kind of deep emotional
involvement. Butas an expert on rare books and an Australian whose nationality
makes her the least controversial political choice to inspect a priceless Hebrew
codexHanna is about to be plunged into a dangerous drama that will force her to
confront both her past and the passions she has worked so hard to conceal.
It is 1996 when Hanna first flies to Sarajevo. The city's peace is new and still
tenuous, but the opportunity to inspect the famous Sarajevo Haggadah is a career
maker that she cannot pass up. A lavishly illuminated medieval Hebrew text, this
haggadah is an anomaly that has fascinated scholars for generations and its
survival in war-torn Bosnia is hailed as "a symbol of the survival of Sarajevo's
Initially put off by her armed U.N. escort and the intense scrutiny of the
National Museum, where she is forced to perform her delicate work, Hanna is
nonetheless mesmerized by the book's astonishing beauty. She studies its inks
and parchment and recovers a fragment of an insect wing, salt crystals, wine
stains, and a single white hair from between the delicate pages. She also notes
that the clumsily rebound book is missing its original clasps. Each discovery is
a clue that offers to unlock a chapter of the haggadah's mysterious history.
But Hanna becomes involved with more than the book during her time in Sarajevo.
After she completes her initial documentation and repair work and leaves the
city, she remains haunted by the few nights of intimacy she shared with Ozren
Karaman, the Muslim librarian who braved enemy shelling to rescue the hagaddah.
As she travels from Vienna to Boston and then to London in the hope of
deciphering her scant evidence, Hanna fleshes out shadows of the book's past.
Simultaneously, Brooks reveals the gripping tale of survival behind each
During World War II, a young partisan is saved by the same Muslim who risks his
life to protect the haggadah from the Nazis. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, a Jewish
doctor unwittingly plays a role in the theft of the book's clasps. In
Inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest's most damning secret spares the book
from burning. In Tarragona in 1492, a poor scribe completes the text just days
before the expulsion of Spain's entire Jewish community. And in Seville in 1480,
the unlikely artist paints a self-portrait into the Seder illustration.
Hanna is thrilled by her discoveries, little suspecting that her professional
and personal worlds are about to come crashing down around her. When she returns
to Sarajevo under very different circumstances, Hanna can no longer remain a
dispassionate observer and finds that she has become one of the "people of the
book"whose passions and sufferings, nobility and frailty, contribute to the
hagaddah's continuing history.
The author of the Pulitzer Prizewinning March and Year of Wonders,
Geraldine Brooks has made a name for herself as one of the foremost novelists of
our era. In People of the Bookinspired by the true story of the Sarajevo
Haggadahshe brilliantly interweaves an epic historical saga of persecution and
survival with a powerful modern-day tale of private betrayals and international
When Hanna implores Ozren to solicit a second opinion on Alia's
condition, he becomes angry and tells her, "Not every story has a happy
ending."(p. 37) To what extent do you believe that their perspectives on
tragedy and death are cultural? To what extent are they personal?
Isak tells Mordechai, "At least the pigeon does no harm. The hawk lives
at the expense of other creatures that dwell in the desert."(p.50) If you
were Lola, would you have left the safety of your known life and gone to
Palestine? Is it better to live as a pigeon or a hawk? Or is there an
When Father Vistorni asks Rabbi Judah Ayreh to warn the printer that the
Church disapproves of one of their recently published texts, Ayreh tells
him, "better you do it than to have us so intellectually enslaved that we do
it for you."(p. 156) Do you agree or disagree with his argument? With the
way he handled Vistorni's request?
What was it, ultimately, that made Father Vistorini approve the haggadah?
Since Brooks leaves this part of the story unclear, how do you imagine it
made its way from his rooms to Sarajevo?
Several of the novel's female characters lived in the pre-feminist era
and certainly fared poorly at the hands of men. Does the fact that she was
pushing for gender equalitynot to mention saving livesjustify Sarah
Heath's poor parenting skills? Would women's rights be where they are today
if it weren't for women like her?
Have you ever been in a position where your professional judgment has
been called into question? How did you react?
Was Hanna being fair to suspect only Amitai of the theft? Do you think
charges should have been pressed against the culprits?
How did Hanna change after discovering the truth about her father? Would
the person she was before her mother's accident have realized that she loved
Ozren? Or risked the dangers involved in returning the codex?
There is an amazing array of "people of the bookboth base and
noblewhose lifetimes span some remarkable periods in human history. Who is
your favorite and why?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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