A few years back I read Geraldine Brooks’ debut novel Year of Wonders, a story set in the time of The Plague, and was moved by her literary artistry. Somehow I missed March, which came out a few years later and won the Pulitzer. This one was based on Louisa May Alcott’s fictional March family in Little Women, and imagined for us what the Civil War taught the March girls’ father since in Alcott’s book, we read of his experiences only in his letters to his daughters. It received a starred review in Publishers’ Weekly.
I still need to read that one.
But I just finished her most recent work, People of the Book, and was again taken by Brooks’ ability to usher the reader straight into the complicated past – in all its beauty and ugliness.
In People of the Book, Brooks’ fictinalizes the finding of an ancient Jewish book known to contemporaries as the Sarajevo haggadah. (FYI, the haggadah is the text of the Passover seder and the Sarajevo haggadah is beautifully engraved with artwork, quite unique). Thought destroyed during the bombing of Sarajevo in 1992, it resurfaces in 1996 and Brooks’ character, a rare book expert named Hanna Heath, is called upon to prepare it for display.
When the pages are cracked open, the reader is sent on a secret trip through the centuries. In her restoration work, Hanna finds within the pages a white hair, an insect wing, missing clasps, a smidgeon of salt, a wine stain – all of which point to the haggadah’s 500-year journey. Hanna can only guess how a wing from an Alpine butterfly ended up in a Jewish tome penned in Spain in the fifteenth century, but Brooks takes the reader to the place Hanna can only wonder about. In between the chapters dealing with Hanna’s own peculiar struggles, the reader is let in on all the secrets of the haggadah. It’s sort of a “if-these-walls-could-speak” tale that makes you ponder if only for a second what any antique would tell us if given a tongue.
I imagine the first words across the board might be, “When will you people learn?!”
I was too tired most nights when I picked up People of the Book to read before bed, and I fell asleep more than once with its pages in my face, but I found remarkable satisfaction in being let in on mysteries the wise Dr. Hanna Heath could only speculate about.
Excellent read, Edglings. Off to find March. . .