Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah are four women who share a common thread within The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman.
Each woman’s story is told separately, but within the pages, each person is connected within the environment of Masada, the Jewish stronghold against the Romans. Masada was an ancient fortress with several palaces, sitting high atop a hill in the harsh desert where the palace and home of King Herod once stood. The four women depicted, live life in a challenging geographical environment, but more so, in a physically and emotionally challenging atmosphere. The four women more or less shared not only food and lodging, but also emotionally involved secrets, fears and losses, all beginning within their interactions within dovecote.
Masada’s cliffs and passages created a fortress for the Jews until the Romans took siege upon it in the last quarter of the first century. The Jews were known as “Zealots”. Each person was assigned a role, and the four women whose lives are intertwined worked in the dovecote. The dovecote was where the women worked to gather fertilizer for the gardens that supplied staples to the inhabitants.
Their lives bring history alive, and Hoffman wasted no detail in telling their stories, stories that show the deprivation, repression, and suffering thrust upon Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. Yet throughout all of that, there were also sexual encounters, willing ones, at that. Hoffman’s prose is masterful, and her word imagery is vivid and filled with perspectives of history that are an extremely amazing accomplishment on her part.
Yael was cast aside by her Sicarri father at birth, and feels her life is worthless. Revka is a grandmother, whose two grandsons became mute after watching the murder of their mother, at the hand of the Romans. Shira is a mystical woman who was accused of witchcraft because of her medicine practices. Aziza, one of Shira’s daughters disguises herself as a man in order to fight like one. Each woman has an intriguing story to tell, and each one has faced the extremes of physical, mental and emotional boundaries.
Love, loss, submission, hardship, discrimination, religion, culture and customs, perseverance and strength reign supreme within the pages. The four women each have tales of their own to tell, involving how they came to the stronghold of Masada, how their lives were connected through the dovecote, but also connected in other areas. The book held my interest, although it was a slow read at times. I did want to know about the characters, wanted to know of their struggles against the harsh environment, but also against the superstitions, religious fanaticism, and the treatment of women in general during the time period portrayed.
The Romans lay siege upon Masada, and their abilities and strength to build not only a wall around the perimeter of Masada, but also a ramp in which to climb to the hilltop in order to release their scourge on the Jews is a part of Jewish history that has been told and handed down through the centuries, based on the writings of Josephus. The almost 1,000 Jews who survived until the scourge, lived their lives until, in an act so dramatic, they, en masse, made certain that they would not die or become enslaved at the hands of the Romans. They did die, but by their own decision to do so. All but seven individuals committed mass suicide, according to history. Two women and five children managed to survive.
Some of Josephus’ contemporary historical writings of the time were based on witness accounts of one or more of the women mentioned in The Dovekeepers. The novel is based on historical fact, and Hoffman writes of the historical data within the pages with the insight of extreme research and travels to Israel and to the site of Masada.
The Dovekeepers is a long read and not a particularly uplifting one, other than the fact that the Jews held up at Masada, fought to survive for their own beliefs. It is a story that is depressing, as a whole, especially if one knows the end, before beginning the book. I highly recommend The Dovekeepers for the historical aspect, and for the educational aspects of the novel. Alice Hoffman has surpassed herself, in my opinion, as far as her magnificent and detailed prose is concerned. Her devotion to accuracy, within a fictional framework is incredible and should be applauded, in my opinion.