The siege of Masada is the historical context for Alice Hoffman’s epic that pulls together the lives of remarkable women in about 70 C.E. Nearly a thousand Jews held the impenetrable mountain fortress for months against the Roman legions. How Roman persecution and slaughter in the villages drove some of the women to Masada, how love drew others, and how their very different lives clashed and combined in the difficult life there are the stories they tell.
The voices of the women in The Dovekeepers are not as distinct as the circumstances of their lives, their unimaginable losses, their cleverness, courage and disparate characters. But sections are narrated by different women, which helps you to keep everyone straight. Yael is the child whose mother died giving birth to her. She has grown up half-ignored–her father is a famous assassin who sees only his dead wife when he looks at her. Revka’s luminous daughter was savaged by a Roman legion—her small grandsons who witnessed the murder from their hiding place can no longer speak. Aziza is a fine warrior, raised as a boy, trained in battle skills, who successfully disguises herself as a man to defend Masada. Shirah is a powerful agent for the goddess she was dedicated to as a small child in Alexandria. Her passion for another woman’s husband drives her life.
The women hide their parentage, their deeds, their lovers, their true identities and their secrets as life intensifies and unravels in the fortress. Hoffman has woven a tremendous amount of historical research into these tales but it reads like an adventure story, not a history lesson. All four women are dovekeepers, tending the birds whose eggs feed the people of Masada and whose manure fertilizes the gardens.
The Dovekeepers is stunning—beautifully written, full of sorrows and shining moments. It is a doomed story, interlaced by mystical portents, magic, spellcasting and revelations. You won’t find much comfort in it and you do need some time to get lost in the book—the sections are long and the harsh details of desert travel and events in the fortress are plentiful. But the book reveals history through the lives of the women who lived it and so it is fascinating. The delicate and the depraved images Hoffman draws stick in the mind as vividly as scenes in a movie.
The Dovekeepers Alice Hoffman | Scribner 2011