Peo­ple of the Book

Geral­dine Brooks

By – November 15, 2011

Geral­dine Brooks’ most recent accom­plish­ment, Peo­ple of the Book, has already attract­ed well-earned acclaim. Brooks has to her cred­it sev­er­al high­ly-respect­ed books, among them the 2006 Pulitzer Prize win­ner, March, as well as Nine Parts of Desire, Year of Won­ders, and For­eign Cor­re­spon­dence.

Peo­ple of the Book is a fic­tion­al­ized account of the Sara­je­vo Haga­da, a six hun­dred year old illu­mi­nat­ed book, one of the ear­li­est of its kind. It chron­i­cles the attempts of a young Aus­tralian con­ser­va­tor, Han­nah Heath, to trace the jour­ney and the ori­gin of the Haga­da, using the beguil­ing clues in its bind­ing. Brooks’ sto­ry-telling gift gen­tly uncov­ers the onion-like lay­ers of the book’s his­to­ry, tak­ing the read­er in a back­ward tra­jec­to­ry from 1940, to Sara­je­vo, Vien­na, Venice, Tar­rag­o­na, and final­ly Seville where we ulti­mate­ly learn how the intri­cate tech­niques of the Moslem por­trait painters of the 1400’s are woven into the sto­ry. In this spell­bind­ing tale of the ever-mov­ing Haga­da over cen­turies we wit­ness the unlike­ly but inevitable involve­ment of the Vat­i­can, the Moslems, the trea­sure-seek­ing Nazis. And, to add even more com­plex­i­ty, inter­wo­ven in the sto­ry is Heath’s ellu­sive strug­gle to find per­son­al acknowl­edge­ment and uncov­er truths in her inner own circle.

Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

Discussion Questions

From: Pen­guin Read­ing Guides

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 alter­na­tive? 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 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? 

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 book” — both base and noble — whose life­times span some remark­able peri­ods in human his­to­ry. Who is your favorite and why?