20 July 2010
I love it when a book is able to seamlessly and eloquently combine fiction and history, leaving you wondering where fiction ends and truth begins. As a voracious reader, I enjoy being able to delicately step through a story's pages and revel in the imagination of the writer, whilst learning a new nugget of actual history that sadly, didn't make any of my history classes in high school or college.
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, does just that. This is a treat beyond all compare, beauty of history and story within front and back covers. The Haggadah is a Jewish book that is read on the first night of Passover and tells the stories of enslavement, and the subsequent miracles performed by God which ultimately resulted in freedom. In People of the Book, Hannah Heath is a rare books expert from Australia who travels to battle-torn Sarajevo in 1996. Her task is to preserve the beautiful Sarajevo Haggadah that has just been uncovered after 100 years. This Haggadah, though, is very different both in color and in sketch -- odd that it has survived throughout the years, since its original creation date sometime in the 14th century in Spain would have been during a time when drawing a person and illuminating it as such, although clothed, was considered offensive. Somehow it has survived throughout the years from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust. Piqued by this curiosity, and passionate about preservation, Hannah also finds several items that are encapsulated within the pages of the book, such as a red stain, or a white hair, or an insect wing, and these objects become the opportunity for the author to explain in whose hands this book may have fallen, and the significance they earned in history. We watch the book travel from Venice and to Vienna, and we learn the stories of the people who held the book, cared for the book, and saved the book, ultimately saving a critical piece of Jewish history. Although some of these sections are fictionalized, the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah sends the message to the reader that it has become even more than just the colorful drawings and the binding of it, but about the people of the book, the people who fought and died for this incredible piece of history.
I found this refreshing and moving, and I was struck by the significance of a book that is of such beauty and importance to history. It made me wonder who really were the people that protected it through hundreds of years? Geraldine Brooks writes each character and scene in such a fluid manner, moments depicted with such heartbreak, such horror, and yet with hope. It moved quickly for me and it wasn't long before I finished.
When I closed the book, I felt regret that I had never learned of this subject and felt that it was a duty of mine to learn more on such an important topic. I immediately began to research away and found several important sites that held more information that helped my education on this subject grow.
Reading People of the Book has made my visits to the museum a much different experience, awareness more profoundly etched within me, as I look at an object on display -- in whose hands did this significant artifact fall, how did this manage to survive time and human ignorance to get to this museum behind protected glass, for me to view? And on my list of places to visit, I will add Sarajevo no matter how battle-torn, simply to be able to visit with the amazing Sarajevo Haggadah, where it is on permanent display.
Please visit Farm Lane Books Blog and the recent post on Book Drum, which is designed to help a reader truly understand all aspects of the book they are reading -- a bit like an online book site that provides a snapshot into the history or areas discussed in a book.