Readers' Guide: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book

by: Geraldine Brooks

Category: FICTION
Guide Created By: JoanP
Discussion Leader(s): JoanP, Ann, JoanK & Traude
Read our archived discussion of this book

Guide Description

Book cover for The Night Villa This is historical fiction, based on the travels of a beautifully illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which somehow survived extinction over the centuries since its creation in Spain in the 14th century. Geraldine Brooks' Aussie conservator, Hanna Heath has been invited into war-torn Bosnia in the spring of 1996 to conserve the manuscript and from there we go back in a time capsule with her to imagine the People of the Book.

Relevant Links

Geraldine Brooks - Background information

Sarajevo Haggadah

Early Haggadah Manuscripts

Illuminated Manuscripts

Brief History of Illuminating Manuscripts

Venice Ghetto

Around Sevlle Image Gallery

Aboriginal rock art from Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Topics for Consideration

Hanna, 1996; "Insect's Wing;" Sarajevo, 1940

1. What is your opinion of Geraldine Brooks' protagonist from these introductory chapters? Do you know people like Hanna? Is she believable? Likeable?

2. Why was Hanna Heath chosen from a pool of more qualified conservators to prepare the Haggadah for exhibition? Do you think she differs from most conservators who consider their job "merely technical?"

3. What are some of the possible reasons Hanna's hands were shaking as she waited for the book to be brought to her in the bank vault?

4. What facts do we learn about the manuscript's appearance in Sarajevo in 1894? Does it appear to have been a legal sale to the museum?

5. Why does the UN want to put it on display as soon as possible in 1996?

6. What do you remember about the book's appearance when Hanna first sees it? Will she rebind the book as previous conservators have done? How does she see her job as a conservator?

7. Is it remarkable, miraculous even, that the manuscript is in such good condition considering the conditions in which it was stored and the way it has been handled?

8. Is there reason to suspect that the manuscript was illustrated by a Christian illuminator? But what is it about the Seder illustration that Hanna finds perplexing?

9. What remarkable discoveries does Hanna make in the manuscript's binding? Why does she believe that the haggadah has been in the Alps at one time? Do you think this is all fiction?

10. What do we learn about the attitudes of the Sarajevo natives during the war from Ozren when he takes Hanna to dinner in the Old Town? Why does he reject the second opinion Hannah offers him to see if anything can be done about his son's head injury

11. What purpose does Lola's story serve? What did you learn of ethnic relations in Sarajevo in the 1940's?

12. Can you tell which characters were were real, which were fictional? Serif Kamal - the Muslim who saved the Haggadah from the Nazis? Dr. Josip Boscovic, the museum director, who turned it over to Kamal? Do you think the name of the person who saved the manuscript in 1992 is known? Do you believe that the 30 year old kustos, Ozren Karaman is a fictitious character?

Hanna, Vienna, 1996; "Feathers and a Rose;" Hanna, Vienna, Spring '96

1 . Has the big question ever been answered as to the whereabouts of the Haggadah during World War II? Why was it said that the person who hid the book was a Nazi conspirator?

2. Do you know if there are actually archived records of conservation work done on the Haggadah in Vienna at the end of the 19th century? Has anyone examined archived records of the conservation or is this all fiction?

3. How does Hanna's mentor, Werner Heinrich, explain the clumsy binding that was put on the Haggadah in Vienna? Why does he suspect a "sinisnter" reason?

4. What do we learn of the Kohen family who brought out the manuscript to sell it in 1894? Where might the manuscript have come from before the family owned it?

5. Is there a reason the chief archivist in the Vienna Archives is portrayed as a hip, very young woman? What is her silver-studded nez retroussˇe?

6. . What bit of informatilon does Hanna learn from the description of the clasps that were on the Haggadah when it arrived in Vienna? Did the conservators intend to replace the old clasps as they did the binding?

7. What did you think of the portrayal of Florien Mittl, the bookbinder and his doctor, Franz Hirschfeldt? Did they convey a feel for the atmosphere in Vienna in 1894 - the artistic, the social scene?

8. What do you understand by the term, Judenfresser? Why does the doctor, Franz Hirschfeldt believe the German Nationalists will want to remove Jews before the Muslims and other exotics who have been flooding the city in their effort to reduce foreign influence?

9. Did you cringe at the idea of the priceless old book in the hands of this man with failing skills in his grimy apartment? "Judging from the clasps, the book must have had a remarkable binding once." What do you think was the inspiration for he description of the silver clasps Florien Mittl removes from the book?

10. What does Hanna find in the third file containing the the Frenchman, Martell's report on the matter of the clasps? What did he do with them? Was there evidence on the actual haggadah that clasps were missing? Were there actually notes in Vienna dating back to the restoration in 1894?

11. Do you think Hanna's mother would rather not see her daughter at all, or is she simply that absorbed in this conference? Were you prepared for her quick prognosis regarding the condition of Alia's brain?

12. Hanna hopes that we are all destined to look like Razmus Kanaha after a millenium of intermixing? What is she really saying here? What does he find intermixed in the wine sample that Hanna has brought to him?

"Wine Stains," Venice 1609; Hanna, Boston, 1996

1. What do you suspect is the reason for Father Vistorini's bitterness, which he drowns in the altar wine? Why does he sense the altar boy is judging him?

2. " I am Pope everwhere except in Venice." Why did Pope Gregory make this remark? Why is Fr. Vistorini more concerned of late?

3. What effect did the invention of the printing press have on publishing in Venice? How did the Jews view the printing press in Venice?

4. How does the priest's interest in his parishioners differ from the rabbi, Judah Aryeh's feelings for his congregation? Can you explain this?

5. How would you describe each man's weakness? Does the author appear to portray one more sympathetically than the other?

6. How did the haggadah come into the hands of Dona Reyna de Serena? What does she ask the rabbi to do with the book? Does she have realistic hope for its return?

7. What is it about the haggadah that startles the rabbi? Can you describe it? Why does he believe the illuminator must have been a Christian?

8. Why does Vistorini say he will not pass the work, though he admits there is nothing that contravenes the Index? What is the actual reason he will burn it?

9. Was Galileo actually brought before the Inquisition? What happened to him? What do you know about the Index of the Inquisition?

10. Why did Vistorini decide to allow the game of chance to save the manuscript from the flames? How did it happen that the inscription was written in the book after all? Would you say one man's weakness pervailed over the other's?

11. What similarities do you see in the societies of each of these stories that threaten the survival of the little book?

12. What startling discovery does Hanna make in Boston that parallels Vistorini's? * Now that we have "laid eyes" on the formidable Dr. Sarah Heath, is she what we had expected from Hanna's description?

Hanna, Boston, 1996

1. Is Hanna's perceptible "edginess" attributable at least in part to the tense mother-daughter relationship?

2. Couldn't/shouldn't Dr. Sarah have tried harder years earlier?

3. Isn't a child's emotional well-being every bit as important as the care of a doctor's patients?

4. Is a mother's deliberate silence about a child's father ever justified? Understandable? Pardonable?

5. Does this first frank conversation between mother and daughter fully explain the reason for their poor relationship?

6. Is this turn of events believable? What if there had been no car accident?

"Saltwater" ~ Tarragona 1492; Hanna, London, 1996

1. Can you think of any reasons why Geraldine Brooks chose the port city of Tarragona, Spain for the creation of the haggadah?

2. Do you remember from whom Dona de Serena had procured the manuscript which she put in Rabbi Aryeh's hands for safekeeping? (This could be important.)

3. What does David Ben Shoushan intend to do with the pages he buys from a young boy in Tarragona? Do we now have the answer to the puzzling Haggadah illustrations, so like the illuminated medieval Christian manuscripts?

4. Why would David have worried about the propriety of placing the images in the haggadah ten years ago, but no longer? Why such an elaborate gift for his nephew?

5. What did the capitulation of Granada have to do with the expulsion of Jews from Spain? Why had the Jews been fighting the Moors?

6. . Have you been noticiing GB's metaphors, particularly in character description? Though women play a subserviant role, how does Brooks describe David's daughter, Ruti? Can you compare her to Lola?

7. What is Kabbalah and Zohar that Ruti has been secretly studying and practicing for the last three years? Does this give her the nerve to carry on the affair with Micha, the bookbinder, though he is married and a father of two?

8. Does it appear that Reuben Ben Shoushon willingly converted to Catholicism to marry Rosa? Is it because the child would not be born a Jew that David turns his back on his pregnant daughter in law? Is this religious intolerance in a way - to disown one's son for religious reasons?

9. If those who agreed to convert to Catholicism would be allowed to remain in Spain, why is Reuben in prison? Were all of the conversos suspected of false conversion? Why will David's older brother not help ransom his nephew now?

10. What gave Ruti the strength to deliver Rosa's baby and then save him? What is the irony here? What will happen to the Haggadah?

Hanna, London, Spring, '96

1. Do you see a change in Hanna after she heads back to London after seeing her Mum in Boston?

2. What remarkable parallels do you see between Hanna's essay on the Haggadah and G. Brooks' work on this book?

3. What new information on the clasps does she learn from Frau Zweig? The salt stains? The white hair found in the binding of the Haggadah?

4. Which did you find more shocking - Ozren's son Alia's recent death or the appearance of Hanna's colleague, Amitai Yomtov in Sarajevo at this time? Isn't he the one who recommended her for the job on the Haggadah? Do you think the two events are related?

"White Hair" ~ Seville, 1480

1. This is the story of Zahra (the Moor) who is brought from Africa to Seville to serve three very different masters. Does GB convey the experience of slavery vividly? How or how not?

2. How does GB convey the atmosphere of Seville in 1480? What do the stories of Zahra's first two masters (who are not connected to the Haggadah) add to the book?

3. What do we learn about artistic technique and the lives of artists in this section?

4. Based on what we learned in the last section, what do you think happened to Zahra?

5. Is this story a plausible explanation of the presence of a Black woman in the illustrations in the real Hagaddah? Why or why not?

Hanna ~ Sarajevo, Spring '96

1. When Hanna looks at the exhibit surrounding the Haggadah, she says (p.320) "the point- that diverse cultures influence and enrich one another -was made with silent eloquence." Has GB made this point with "eloquence"? What are some of the ways she has (or hasn't) done so?

2.Hanna's accusation of forgery adds one more plot twist. Is this effective dramatically?

3. If you were Hanna, what would be your reaction to your colleagues' lack of support? Would you have pressed the issue?

"Lola" ~ Jerusalem, 2000

1. Why do you think the author included this chapter on Lola's life in 2000?

2. Do you think Lola represents her generation of Jews who managed to survive World War II?

3. Where had she spent the war years? Where does she work now?

4. How did Lola come upon the "miracle"? Was it too much of a coincidence that she would be the one to discover the book as she did?

Hanna ~ Gunumeleng, 2002

1. What is Hanna doing in Gunumeleng? Where is this place of twisted gum trees and Mimi paintings?

2. Were you shocked that the Sharanskys had asked Hanna to take over her mother's role in Aaron Sharansky's foundation? Did she take it?

3. Did you feel any sympathy at all for Sarah Heath?

4. Had you any doubt that Dr. Werner Heinrich and Ozren knew that Hanna was right about the authenticity of the folio on display at the museum? Were you satisfied with Amitai's explanation of what happened?

5. Do you believe that the Sarajevo Haggadah belongs in Sarajevo, or that it belongs to the Jews in Israel, as Werner believed?

6. How did Australia's Dept. of Foreign Affairs become involved in the affair? Why was this whole interlude necessary for Brooks' plot?

7. The tiny lines Zahra had written on the saffron robe with the single cat hair left on her brush - another miracle? Are there actually scratches visible on the real Haggadah?

8. What became of Werner's facsimile? Did you find yourself rooting against another book burning?

"Afterword" ~ Conclusions (These questions come from several different sources.)

1. Some say the "Afterword" should have been located at the start of the book. What do you think? Why do you think the decision was made to place it at the end?

2. In what ways is the Sarajevo Haggadah symbolic of the plight of the Jewish people over the years? Would you say that this became the main theme of the book or do you see an even broader theme?

3. Did Geraldine Brooks conceive a believable history of the Sarajevo Haggadah based on the little that is known of its history? Do you think the different chapters, which told different stories, hung together well?

4. 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?

5. Did you connect with Hanna? Did you find her relationships with her mother and Orzen believable? What did they add to the overall story?

6. Hanna's mother justifies her poor parenting through her feminist ideals. How did you see women's situation change over the years? Do you think Hanna's mothers attitude was necessary to bring about permanent change for women?

7. Do you think the suspenseful ending fit with the rest of the book? Were you surprised by what happened? If you were Hanna, would you have forgiven Orzen?

8. What is this book? It involves secrets, but is it a mystery? A thriller?

9. 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." Do you believe this story had a happy ending?

10. After having read this book, can you understand why it has been tops on best seller lists throughout the world? How would you rate this book on a scale of 1-5?