Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Power of the Book


People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

Did you know that during the Bosnian wars of the 1990s a Muslim museum curator risked his own life to save an extraordinarily beautiful Hebrew haggadah that was one of the museum's most valuable pieces? It is true, and that alone is enough to restore faith in the power of art and liturgy to unify people of faith.

This small piece of powerful truth is the premise on which Geraldine Brooks bases this lovely novel. Brooks imagines the history of this approximately 500-year-old haggadah, and how it came to rest in a Bosnian museum. The haggadah is the prayerbook used at the table during the Jewish Passover tradition of the seder meal. The haggadah that is at the center of People of the Book is a work of art that by a series of miracles has survived the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the bookburnings of Italy in the 17th century, the prejudice of Austrians against Jews in the late 19th century, and finally the brutality of Sarajevo at the end of the 20th.

The book's protagonist, Hanna, is a book conservator. You hear of people who can write about paint drying and make it interesting? Brooks accomplishes this when she takes the potentially yawn-inspiring topic of book conservation and makes it as fascinating as the best detective novel. Using a series of tiny clues that Hanna discovers as her springboard, Brooks takes us back in time and artfully shows us the ways that this unique book has survived potential destruction time and again. Even more importantly, she illustrates through this haggadah's turbulent journey through the hands of Jews, Muslims, and Christians that our histories are more entwined than we care to admit.

People of the Book demonstrates (without being preachy) that our multi-ethnic and interfaith heritage are gifts to be celebrated rather than denied and suppressed. The power of prayer, worship, ritual, and art to bring us together as God's children is beautifully illustrated in the haggadah itself as well as in the series of artists who create it and the hands into which it falls. This is a must read!

Reverent Reader

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