Thursday, January 08, 2009

This is for the People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer for her Civil War book, the March. In that book she imagined what happened to a character in Little Women who went off to war. In her latest novel, People of the Book, she imagines what happened to the Sarajevo Haggadah, a sumptuously illustrated Jewish religious text that was created in Spain was passed to Italy and then to Sarajevo where it was protected by Bosnian Muslims.

The principal character is Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator who is asked to examine the text in Sarajevo. As she finds bits in the book and in references to it, she begins to tell the story of how the book survived as so many Jews did not. It is usually the bravery of an individual or sheer luck that sends the book along with refugees to the next location.

Almost all of the stories are tragic with the deaths of many innocents. I thought one of the best was the story of Lola, a young Bosnian Jew, who escapes the Nazis to join a partisan band made up of children in the woods. When that goes wrong she is protected by a local Muslim family who save the Haggadah as well. This is a side of World War 2 that is rarely seen in Western books and I found her story particularly touching.

While this all sounds terribly tragic and sad, Brooks keeps coming back to the understandings and goodwill between Jews, Christians and Muslims. She holds out hope that despite centuries of conflict and terror, goodness can still return.

I saw some comparisons to the Da Vinci Code and the literary thriller genre, probably because the story involves a mysterious book. Keep in mind there are no hints of the supernatural or grand conspiracies in this book. Instead you have a hopeful story that something good can survive what seems like the end of the world.

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