The Dovekeepers: A Novel

  • Alice Hoffman
  • Scribner
  • 512 pp.

In this sweeping historical novel set on the ancient fortress of Masada, four dynamic women explore the female condition in the male realm of holy war.

Reviewed by Rhoda Trooboff

The Dovekeepers has it all –– convincing characters, compelling plot, breathtaking setting, plus age-old themes swirling in a maelstrom of religion, sex, and war. It helps that novelist Alice Hoffman has great historical material to work with.

In 73CE, high above the Judean desert and the Dead Sea, Masada, the besieged mountain fortress occupied by the last remnant of resistance against Roman occupation of the Holy Land, was finally breached. Soldiers commanded by Lucius Flavius Silva entered the compound and found 900 dead Jewish Zealots –– warriors, women, and children –– all self-slain, having preferred death to slavery under imperial rule. So ended the uprising that saw Jerusalem’s fall and the Second Temple’s sacking in 70CE.

According to Hoffman’s principal source, Josephus’ first-century The Jewish War, two women and five children survived the mass suicide and told the Romans the Masada story. Otherwise the heroic –– or fanatic –– massacre would have been lost to history.

Inspired by visiting Masada since its 1960s excavation and restoration by Israeli archaeologist/general Yigael Yadin, Hoffman examined artifacts in Masada’s Yadin Museum, studied Josephus’ account, and researched ancient near-Eastern wildlife and daily life, traditions of magic and herbal medicine, and religious texts and practices. No visitor to Masada can miss its importance to modern Israel or its place in the geopolitics of the modern Middle East: After completing basic training, Israeli soldiers climb the ancient Snake Path by night and at a torchlight ceremony are sworn into the IDF by declaring: “Masada shall not fall again.”

To these materials Hoffman has applied her formidable sympathetic imagination to recreate the drama between the years 70CE and 73CE, recounted by four strong women. Her narrators explore the female condition in the male realm of holy war. Yael, an assassin’s daughter and sister of a lieutenant of ancient Masada’s charismatic leader, Eleazar Ben-Ya’ir, takes the reader from Jerusalem in flames through her adolescent sexual awakening and a harrowing desert trek ending at Masada. Continuing the story, Revka teaches the pregnant Yael the work of Masada’s dovecotes, which supply food for the Sicarii, the violent extremist Zealot splinter group encamped at the mountain fortress built a century earlier by Herod the Great. The third narrator, Aziza, a girl raised (improbably) as a boy warrior, works by day in the dovecotes and by night joins Sicarii raids against the Romans in the desert below. The fourth narrator, also a dovekeeper, is Shirah, a Jewess trained by Egyptian priestesses to be a faith healer and reader of omens. Her backstory connects Ben-Ya’ir to the other dovekeepers. Before her death in the mass suicide, Shirah helps Yael, Revkah, and the five children escape via the site’s system of subterranean cisterns.

The story line examines how women –– ancient and modern –– manage to live with, and love, men engaged in religion-inspired asymmetrical warfare. Such women do the messy work of daily life beside their men who, gripped by ideological –– even fanatical –– ardor, pursue apocalyptic ends. Hoffman moves effortlessly among action, setting, and details of daily life in ancient Judea, but always returns to religious reverie, the burdens of womanhood, and the horror of war. Thus The Dovekeepers is deeply spiritual and unabashedly feminist. About holy war it is provocatively ambivalent.

The four women are the novel’s protagonists. So is Masada itself: Perched between sky and desert, the aerie is elemental, awe-inspiring. “They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land, and that God can be found there by those with open eyes,” Hoffman writes. Masada evokes both “the light and compassion of the Almighty” and “the other side, the dark realm, the evil side of the world, that terrible region which could be found at the left hand of God and fed on human sin.” “Is it not beautiful?” Aziza asks a warrior companion. “Is it not terrible?” he replies. They plunge into torrid lovemaking.

Hoffman’s women collect doves’ eggs and shovel dove dung, cook stews and concoct potions, make love, deliver babies, tend the sick and wounded, nurture children, make Masada’s gardens bloom, wield weapons alongside male warriors, and bury the dead, all while scanning the sky for rain and portents and the desert for progress of the Roman siege. The women observe the rites of post-biblical Judaism and contemplate the Angel of Death and the World-to-Come. They worship the Hebrew God, Adonai, and venerate Ashtoreth, “the female aspect of God, … the bride to Adonai’s groom, … the Queen of Heaven.”

Letting out every rhetorical stop, Hoffman pulls off a grim, gripping treatment of first-century holy war that resonates for our own time. Masada inspired the IDF’s service oath; Hoffman’s reworking of Ben-Ya’ir’s 73CE suicide exhortation (“The time has come for us to prove our faith. … Our freedom is our winding sheet, more glorious than any other. … Let our story bear witness that we perished out of choice, … to choose death rather than slavery.”) sounds eerily like contemporary jihadists’ fanatical death pledges.

The author of 28 prior works of fiction (including Practical Magic, Fortune’s Daughter, and Here on Earth), Hoffman uses high-wattage, sometimes prolix language that is both beautiful and histrionic. Despite its tightly constrained time and place, The Dovekeepers is epic in scope, reminiscent on the one hand of Vergil’s sublime Aeneid and on the other of the more sensational The Red Tent (Anita Diamant), Last Days of Pompeii (Edward Bulwer-Lytton) and Ben-Hur (Lew Wallace). Like an epic on steroids, The Dovekeepers contains at least three descents into the Underworld, oft-repeated omens, incantations, and heroic epithets, plus more than one deus ex machina.

Scholars may quarrel with the accuracy of Hoffman’s treatment of geography, history, religious practice, and other details. Nevertheless, book groups will have a field day with The Dovekeepers, historical fiction at its best and a stunning conversation starter on the fraught topics of war, sex, and religion.

Rhoda Trooboff, a longtime literature and writing teacher at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., is a publisher of children’s books at Tenley Circle Press, Ltd.

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