The Dovekeepers tells the story of four women whose lives intersect when they tend to the doves at the desert fortress of Masada. In 70 CE, Jerusalem has fallen to the Romans and the Jews have fled, searching for refuge. Yael comes with her father, a famed assassin, to reunite with her brother. Revka arrives with her young grandsons, who have not spoken since witnessing the brutal murder of their mother. Shirah comes to meet a man with whom she has a long and complicated past. She brings with her the knowledge of ancient magic and her children. Her oldest daughter, Aziza was raised as a boy and may find use for her knowledge of horsemanship and archery as the Romans approach the fortress – the final stronghold of the Jewish people.
This book is a beautifully written, masterfully presented story. The strength of the story and the poetry of the writing combine seamlessly to bring the reader the horrors and triumphs of the lives of the women. “Everything I might have been had disappeared. The girl who walked to the oasis on the night the Temple burned no longer left footprints. She, who had ashes in her long, red hair and wept for the loss of her city and her home, had been left behind where the citron tree had grown.”
Parts of this novel reflect the extensive research Ms. Hoffman conducted about the fortress, the Jewish exiles and the Roman brutality. The rest is speculation since, as Hoffman notes, we don’t have an abundance of women’s accounts from this time period. While we get the story of each woman from her own words, the point of view does not rapidly switch. Instead, the reader has a hundred pages or so to immerse themselves in each character.
Each of the four women is intricately created and it’s impossible to choose a favorite because each one is fascinating. The author does an excellent job of balancing the women. Yael and Aziza are young women, while Shirah and Revka are of the generation before them. The difference in age does not prevent them from facing the same issues – the desertion of family, questions of faith, the responsibility of motherhood, and the joy and pain of love. This novel gives us insight into how women relate to men and to each other. It reminds us that in the midst of unimaginable crisis, everyday life continues and that joy, hope, and magic prevail in the most unlikely of places. There is so much going on within the fortress itself that it is easy to forget that the Romans are determined to conquer Masada and leave no survivors within it. These women and their incredible stories will not soon be forgotten.
By Alice Hoffman
Scribner October 2011