One hallmark of a good writer is finding a new way to tell an old story. Fans of Alice Hoffman will be surprised, and yet pleased, to discover “The Dovekeepers,” a fresh version of the story of Masada in the year 70 C.E., just after the Temple is destroyed. Historical fiction is a total departure for Hoffman’s adult novels, although she does weave familiar themes of magic and mysticism into the story.
In an author’s note, Hoffman notes how profoundly changed and inspired she had become by a visit to Masada in Israel. Masada is an ancient fortress surrounded by steep cliffs that had been used by Jews to escape the Roman military, the Sacirii.
“The Dovekeepers,” while fiction, is based on years of research. Hoffman has read the writings of the ancient historian, Josephus (who leaves the only account of the events at Masada) and learns that there are two women and five children out of 900 who survive; two of those women are the focus of the book.
The book is broken up into four parts, each one narrated by a different woman whose lives intertwine at Masada. There is Yael, the redheaded daughter of an assassin, born to a dead mother; Revka, the baker’s wife who witnesses the brutal murder of her only daughter and is now charged with raising her grandsons; Aziza, born a female but is trained as a warrior; and Shira, Aziza’s mother, known as the Witch of Moab, who is the keeper of many secrets, including that of a long-ago connection she has to one of the other characters.
Each woman has loved deeply, lost greatly, and has the scars to prove it, both physical and emotional.
When Yael arrives at Masada after a time in the desert, the other women, sensing that there is something special about her, assign her to work in the dovecote, caring for the doves; their excrement is used as fertilizer, though sometimes they are sacrificed for food. Yael’s father blames her for the death of her mother in childbirth; her brother, Amram, is a powerful warrior and is in love with Aziza.
Initially wary of each other, the four women gradually become somewhat of a family as they come together at the Masada fortress; the suspense builds as the Romans surround the mountain.
Though by no means flawless, Hoffman’s female characters are intelligent, independent, kind and strong despite great loss and hard living conditions. In some ways they are like modern women; they are mothers, and they are prepared to sacrifice for their families.
Even if the reader is familiar with the story of Masada and knows what is coming, Hoffman manages to create an atmosphere of suspense and sadness as the inevitable end of days approach.
While it is challenging to find a favorite passage out of 500 pages of luminous prose, this stands out as a testament of the desire for life, spoken by Yael:
“We would probably die before long. Our bones would be white upon the white rocks. We would be clawed at by eagles, taken by jackals. We would rise into the wind and become ashes. But not now. Not yet. We were still alive.”
“The Dovekeepers” may very well be Hoffman’s masterpiece.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)