Book Review: The Dovekeepers
A good novel should transport you to a different place, even when the book is set in your hometown. Whether it’s a distant time, foreign location, or unfamiliar emotional landscape, it should open a window onto a new world, yet one that remains recognizable in its humanity. In her latest book, The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman has done that in spades.
Set in Israel during the 1st century C.E., The Dovekeepers is Hoffman’s fictionalized account of the famous Siege of Masada, during which the Roman Legion surrounded a group of 900 Jewish refugees—warriors as well as women, children, and the elderly—who had fled Jerusalem earlier in the Roman-Jewish war and took shelter in King Herod’s ancient and isolated fortress, perched high on a plateau in southern Israel. When the end was near and the Jews knew they were defeated, they decided to commit mass suicide rather than give their merciless Roman attackers the chance to carry out crucifixions, beheadings, and other forms of brutality, as they’d already done to similar Jewish holdouts. Only five children and two women survived the siege.
Out of this historical horror story, Hoffman has fashioned a brilliant and beautiful novel, using four women as the vehicle to tell her tale. Each one recounts the story of her past and how she ended up in Masada, working in the dovecote alongside the others, tending to the birds whose dung was vital to the community’s gardens—and therefore, its survival in middle of the desert. Though Hoffman has created plot and character where history has provided us with only the barest of outlines, she’s clearly done an inordinate amount of research to ensure the story hews closely to the facts we do have. As I edit my own historical novel and work on getting all of the details just right, I am humbled by what a herculean task she faced.
Though the book is long, you will be sad to leave these characters behind when it is over. The language is gorgeous—like an incantation from whose spell you do not wish to awaken—and the women of Masada are made real in a way that no historical tome could ever accomplish. Though Hoffman puts the following words into the mouth of one of her main characters, it’s also her way of explaining why she decided to tell this story in the first place: “This is the reason we are here, to give thanks to our mothers, who are watching over us in the place where we will join them one day.”
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman [Published by Scribner, October 2011].