The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman; published 2011 by Scribner
Many claim that this book is Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece, and for good cause. The book was five years in the writing. The amount of research Hoffman did for this project alone makes it worth the read. But Hoffman has done more than just collect facts. She has breathed life into them, creating a mosaic of beautiful characters who tell us a haunting story.
The premise of the book is a true event which happened in 70 CE in Israel. Rome has destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and is intent on weeding out any possibility of rebellion. Nine hundred Jews gather at the Judean fortress of Masada, a stronghold once lived in by King Herod, hoping the Romans will simply leave them alone and let them continue practicing their faith in peace. Of course, Rome refuses. Masada stands as the last Jewish resistance to Rome, and the Emperor Silva will not give up until the entire fortress is destroyed. After the horrible massacre, only two women and five children survive.
Hoffman tells the story through the voices of four women: Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. They each come to Masada with a past: they have sinned, they have been sinned against, they are bitter, and they are repentant. They all work together in the dovecote, taking care of the doves whose droppings fertilize the ground, ensuring that the fortress has plenty of crops. They share their lives together, helping each other heal and empowering each other to stand strong against the Romans.
Yael is a beautiful young woman with a striking quality: she has bright red hair. Though her father blames her for her mother’s death in childbirth, Yael burns with strength and virility. She often dreams of a lion, and knows that that majestic animal holds important meaning in her life. She falls in love with her friend’s husband and has a child by him, though her friend and the husband both die in the desert on their way to Masada. Yael has the child and names him Arieh, which is the Hebrew word for lion. (If you’re thinking that this name is similar to Ariel, you’re right; my name means “lioness of God.”) Arieh is the key which reunites her to her father. But Arieh is not the only lion in her life.
Revka is a loving but tough grandmother. She is fiercely loyal and protective. She comes to Masada with her son-in-law and grandsons after the Romans destroyed their town and then murdered her daughter. Revka carries immense guilt for having killed the Romans who murdered her daughter. Her grandsons witnessed their mother’s death, and they are no longer able to speak. Her son-in-law, who used to be a peaceful scholarly man, is now intent on revenge and forms himself into Masada’s most dangerous and reckless warrior.
Aziza was, to me, the most interesting character. Her given name was Rebekah, but after she and her mother are brutally raped by nomads, her mother changes her name and transforms her into a boy to protect her from future harm. So Aziza grows up in Moab as a boy, hunting and fighting with her adopted father and the men of their tribe, but when they arrive at Masada, her mother has her live again as a woman, again for Aziza’s protection. But Aziza has known what it feels like to have the freedom, respect, and privileges that men have, so even as a woman she sees men as her equals and disguises herself as a boy so that she can continue fighting against the Romans.
Shirah is Aziza’s mother, and she is the woman who draws the others together. She’s called the Witch of Moab because she knows magic and prays to Ashtoreth, the female goddess. She leaves her husband in Moab and brings Aziza and her other children to Masada so she can be reunited with her true love: Eleazar Ben Ya’ir, the leader of the fortress. Although Shirah knows that love will be her undoing, she cannot help doing whatever she can for the sake of Eleazar and her children.
Each of these women is strong and lovely. Hoffman does a brilliant job giving each woman her own unique voice, although Hoffman’s writing style stays consistent. At the end of each narrative section, I was loathe to leave that woman. I loved hearing her voice.
The book truly is a masterpiece, with rich imagery and symbolism woven throughout. The book is never sentimental, but always fierce and gripping. These women never do anything half-way; they are completely committed to each other and willing to do whatever they must to protect those they love. The devotion of all the Jews to God is inspiring. They are tempted to feel like God has deserted them, but they hold on to the belief that He has a wonderful plan. They are willing to die for Him despite not understanding the reason for their own deaths. Although I’m generally a fan of revealing the ends of stories—not because I like to spoil things, but because I believe the story is in the journey—I will not say what happens to these women. You become deeply attached to them, but you know that only two women can survive. I’ll just say this: the ending was incredibly powerful and I bawled during the last pages. Keep a box of tissues handy.
I didn’t expect this, but I have absolutely found another favorite book. It’s top five. I know that this is a fantastic work of literature I can return to and continue to be struck by. I’m sure that I missed many important things the first time around. I am so grateful that this book exists, and I cannot wait to experience it again and again.
Update: In December 2013 I re-read this book. You can read my thoughts and reflections on the second reading here.