Book Review

The Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers

  • Author: Alice Hoffman
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: October 4, 2011
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster

CONTENT WARNING: blood, torture, murder, self-harm, slavery, death, religious intolerance, rape, violence, grief, trauma, death of a child, harm to animals

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of research and imagination.

Nearly two thousand years ago, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman’s novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.

The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are keeping secrets—about who they are, where they came from, who fathered them, and whom they love.

I’m not sure where my mom got this book from, but she presented it to me randomly one day and told me to read it, and that it’s the story of what happened on Masada. This was shortly after we had returned from my father’s last visit to Israel, and we had actually visited that site, which is absolutely breathtaking. If you haven’t gone, it’s well worth the trek, along with all the other amazing sites in the country. But I couldn’t resist a good historical fiction, especially one written but one of my newest favorite authors. It brought me right back to that huge mountain in the middle of the desert, where it feels like you’re all alone in the middle of nowhere, far from the ground, and surrounded by these incredible ruins of a fortress that Herod had built. Hoffman brings that fortress to vivid life.

“When I went to the wall to look out at the far reaches beyond our settlement, I was often stunned by how set apart we were from the rest of the world. The wilderness appeared endless, the earth so distant it seemed impossible we might ever walk upon it again.”

The book itself is broken into four sections, and each section is told through the eyes of a different woman. It begins with Yael’s story, in Jerusalem itself. She doesn’t have an easy childhood, and it’s immediately hard not to empathize and love this young girl, even though I know that things are going to go from bad to worse. Just going to Jerusalem, I can attest to the fact that there is absolutely something special that just sort of crackles in the air of Jerusalem, where you can feel it in every cell of your body that it is a holy place. But the wording here is perfect, and explains why this is still such a hotbed of conflict:

“The desire for Jerusalem was a fire that could not be quenched. There was a spark inside that holiest of holy places that made people want to possess it, and what men yearn for they often destroy.”

Yael is also a witness to the destruction of the Second Temple, a catastrophe that is still mourned by Jewish people all over the world. Each year on Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av, we mourn the destruction of the temple. But seeing the destruction through the eyes of someone who was there just broke my heart:

“Stone should last forever, but on that night I came to understand that a stone was only another form of dust. Streams of holy dust loomed in the air, and every breath included remnants of the Temple, so that we inhaled that which was meant to stand throughout eternity.”

Yael and her father flee into the desert, heading toward Masada, the last stronghold of the Jewish people. The dangerous journey changes who she is, and makes her into someone strong and ruthless. While this may not be the best thing, it’s what keeps her going and helps her survive in desperate and harsh times:

“I was a woman of the desert now, no longer the shy outsider, a city girl frightened of scorpions. I had become fierce, willing to do anything to get what I wanted. This was the way hunters were born. I felt that savagery inside of me, a dark glimmering of will that resolved to survive.”

When Yael finally reaches Masada, she’s assigned to work as a dovekeeper, entwining her life with that of the other 3 women in the story. And while this doesn’t seem like a very prestigious job, it’s actually what makes it possible for all these people to survive. 

“Without the doves, this fortress would have already fallen. The leavings scattered in the orchard have turned our world green and lush, nourishing the roots of the dates and olives, feeding the almond trees, causing them to burst into blooms of pink and white clouds. Without the doves, we would have starved long ago.”

Revka’s life was seemingly perfect until they were forced to flee, with her two grandsons traumatized by what happened to their mother. She has to adjust to the loss of her family, her silent grandsons, and the harsh reality of living at Masada compared to the comforts of her old life. But she does so with grace and dignity, learning how to offer comfort and receive it from surprising places. Her pages are decidedly different from Yael’s coming from a much older character, with a different worldview and life experiences, and a different path to Masada.

“I wondered what else she had done that had called for such bravery, or if, like mine, her courage sprang from sorrow. The less you had to lose, the easier it was to pick up the knife, the sword, the scorpion.”

Aziza was another young character, but such an interesting one. For safety, she was dressed as a boy, and consequently taught to be a warrior, which wasn’t a path open to women. As a result, she didn’t learn the skills expected of a woman, like weaving and cooking, But she wasn’t allowed to use the skills that she did have, even when it would have benefited the group, simply because she was a woman. I loved her fierce spirit, how she responded to situations and heartbreak, and how she saw the world. But as like the other women, she had her own secrets, and they kept the women together:

“Even as a very small child, I understood that women had secrets, and that some of these were only to be told to daughters. In this way we were bound together for eternity.”

Shirah was another intriguing character, having been raised in Alexandria, and trained in magic as well as healing, which led to her being somewhat of an outcast. She knew what her future would be, and kept her own secrets, which were bound to come out to the women she worked with most closely. And as much as the other women at Masada wanted to shun her, they still came to her when all else failed. It’s through Shirah’s eyes that we see the fall of Masada, when the Romans come and besiege the fortress, storming it when the siege failed. 

“Many said it was possible to view heaven from this mountain of ours, but now we seemed much closer to the first gate of hell.”

Although I knew how the story ends, since it’s a tragic and well-known event, I had hope that some would survive. I already had it worked out who was going to survive, and I was pleased that at least some of these fierce, brave, and intelligent women did survive. And they completely understood why it went down the way it did. Rome couldn’t let any insult to the empire go unchecked, because it would allow hope to flourish:

“There was only one reason why Rome should come to try to defeat us when we were so few and their empire so great. They feared we rebels might serve as an ember to reignite the flame of freedom. Disgrace smolders, it burns when you least expect it to ignite. The Romans could not allow this.”

While it was a sad read, I knew that going into the book, and tried my best to prepare myself. I could understand the motivation of each of the characters, found it incredibly easy to put myself into their shoes, and that is just some of the brilliance of Hoffman’s writing. She brought history to life in a way that is absolutely unparalleled, and made my own visit that much more meaningful. Instead of a pile of ruins, now I can picture the people who made a desperate, final stand at this desolate mountain in the middle of a desert. And throughout the story, there are themes woven into it that we can all relate to: family, faith, loss, grief, forgiveness, friendship, the bonds of family, defiance, acceptance, hope, and perhaps most importantly, the desperate will to live. 

I’ve included some of my own photos from my visit to Masada to help you picture this amazing place, if you haven’t gotten to visit.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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