Reading guide for People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

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People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2009, 672 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa A. Goldstein

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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. But—as an expert on rare books and an Australian whose nationality makes her the least controversial political choice to inspect a priceless Hebrew codex—Hanna 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 multiethnic ideal."

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 miniscule artifact.

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 Prize–winning 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 Book—inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah—she brilliantly interweaves an epic historical saga of persecution and survival with a powerful modern-day tale of private betrayals and international intrigue.


Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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 alternative?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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 equality—not to mention saving lives—justify Sarah Heath's poor parenting skills? Would women's rights be where they are today if it weren't for women like her?
  6. Have you ever been in a position where your professional judgment has been called into question? How did you react?
  7. Was Hanna being fair to suspect only Amitai of the theft? Do you think charges should have been pressed against the culprits?
  8. 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?
  9. There is an amazing array of "people of the book”—both base and noble—whose 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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