The truth, as she sees it 

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks returns with People of the Book

In the unglamorous world of ancient-book conservation, the Sarajevo Haggadah is a celebrity. A prized gem of medieval Judaica, the Haggadah's remarkable survival since its creation in the 1400s in Spain, through centuries of war and persecution, makes it a valuable item. A Haggadah, named from the Hebrew root "to tell," is a traditional Jewish book used at the Passover Seder relating the story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt.

But the Sarajevo Haggadah is far from traditional, and its existence is shrouded in mystery. Decorated in richly colored illustrations at a time when the Jewish commandment against creating graven images prevented most books from containing any pictures whatsoever, the Haggadah's illustrations show scenes both intriguing and mystifying to scholars, and what little is known about its history makes its survival both puzzling and amazing.

For author Geraldine Brooks, it was this very mix of the known and the unknown surrounding the Sarajevo Haggadah that inspired her historical novel, People of the Book.

"I became intrigued with it because of the story of how it's been rescued over the centuries, and some of those stories we know, and others we can only speculate about," says Brooks, whose previous work, March, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

In People of the Book, Brooks charts her own story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, imagining its journey from creation in Seville in 1480 up to present-day Sarajevo, where rare-book expert Hannah Heath, a sarcastic Australian recluse, is hired to repair the book. The novel shifts between the present and past, using a series of tiny artifacts discovered in the book's bindings by Hannah – an insect wing, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair – as triggers for the stories of the people and places behind them.

When it comes to the delicate work of reconstructing history, Brooks knows what she's doing. A master of the historical fiction novel, Brooks delights in adding the flesh to what she calls the "skeleton of known fact." Her previous novels, March and Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, explore Europe during the American Civil War and the European plague, respectively. Year of Wonders uses the shell of historical fact surrounding a plague village in the mountains of Britain, within which Brooks imagines a world for her novel. In March, Brooks' stirring portrait of the war-torn South adds depth to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women by narrating the untold story of the absent father at war, Mr. March.

Of course, molding the history of others can be a risky undertaking, as Brooks acknowledges in her own trepidation over visiting the former plague village of Eyam in England following the publication of Year of Wonders.

"I was worried they might decide to clap me in the stocks for taking liberties with their history," she says, "but people seem to appreciate an attempt to imagine what it was like." Part of this appreciation most likely stems from the in-depth research that goes into these novels. But for stories like that of the Sarajevo Haggadah, where so little is known, the research is less about what happened and more about what life looked and felt like at the time. "We don't know the circumstances of how it was created, why this book had these lavish illustrations," she notes.

Instead, Brooks' research turns to the world that will become her characters: "The first thing I research for is to find a credible voice ... trying to immerse as much as you can until you can hear someone talking to you. If I find myself in Venice in 1609 with a Jewish wife cooking breakfast, I have to know what did they eat in the Jewish ghettoes in 1609?

"And that sends me to the library."

Using artistic license, Brooks explains some of the more intriguing and confusing content of the Haggadah's illustrations. In one picture of a Spanish Seder, a woman with dark skin and African features stands in contrast among family members around a table, but holds a piece of matzo and wears the robes of a wealthy Spanish Jew of the time, a story that comes to life in People of the Book. The scene is one of many aspects that make the Haggadah a symbol of possible diversity and cultural harmony. The illustrations echo the kind done by medieval Christians as well as an Islamic style of decoration. In Venice in 1609, a Catholic priest inspected the Haggadah and saved it from the fires of the pope's inquisition, as evidenced by his inscription signed on the text. And in Bosnia in World War II, a Muslim librarian risked his life to save the Haggadah from the Nazis.

Though Brooks does not overtly push a political message upon her readers, it is obvious the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah is a timely one with its allusions to religious polarization. "I think we as human beings always seem to do better as a society at those times when we really celebrate our differences and use them in a way to learn about different answers to the problems of being human," Brooks says. "But it seems ... it always falls apart, and we end up demonizing each other, and our societies become the poorer for it."


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