Hoffman’s ‘Dovekeepers’ compelling reading
By Anne Hilton Monday, August 20 2012
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman bids fair to be my very best reading for 2012, partly because I enjoy a historical novel and partly because it is so very well written.
I may have the advantage over some readers in that during a long sea voyage when it was possible to travel from Europe to Trinidad by sea in a roundabout route beginning in Amsterdam, from there to Hamburg, thence up the Orinoco to Cuidad Bolivar I passed the time reading Josephus’ History of the Jewish Wars, including his eyewitness account of the siege of Masada in AD 70.
Alice Hoffman’s book (now available at Nigel R Khan, Bookseller) is based on Josephus’ account of the siege as Romans, determined to crush the Jewish revolt utterly, first destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem then rebel strongholds in the desert, ending with the siege of Herod the Great’s stronghold on Masada, an isolated rock plateau south of Jerusalem on the edge of the Judean desert, overlooking the Dead Sea.
Josephus reported that of the 900 people in Masada, when the Romans built a rampart/pier (that still stands) only two women and five children escaped when the fortress was captured.
Although one knows that Masada will be conquered, that the Jews chose to kill themselves when they could no longer hold out, Alice Hoffman’s writing is so good that it makes compelling reading.
The story is told through the lives of four women. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, her father, a “sicarii” assassin blames Yael for killing his adored wife.
Yael flees Jerusalem with her father when the Temple is destroyed. Revka is a baker’s wife who saw her beloved daughter assaulted and murdered, leaving her two grandsons mute.
Shirah, called the Witch of Moab, knows what we call white magic, helps Yael deliver her baby and takes it as her own to protect Yael.
Azira was raised as a boy; she is a warrior who feels more at home with weapons than in a woman’s traditional role. All four are dovekeepers in the fortress of Masada. The droppings from the doves fertilise the crops the people raise on the fields watered by an ingenious system of cisterns.
The work of the dovekeepers, though apparently lowly, is key to survival on Masada.
It was courage, the courage of both men and women and the determination to resist that enabled the fortress to hold out so long against the Romans.
Inevitably there were squabbles among the people confined to the fortress. There were raids to the surrounding countryside to secure more supplies until, having subdued the rest of the country, the Romans laid siege to Masada.
Although we know the ending, that the community chose to die rather than live as slaves, Hoffman’s writing compels one to read to the bitter end – and beyond.
Ten men are chosen to cut the throats of men, women and children, one volunteers to kill the other nine killers, taking the sin upon himself – for faith is a constant theme throughout this book. To tell any more of the story of the dovekeepers would spoil the book for those who have yet to read this remarkable historical novel – that you’ll find at Nigel R Khan, Bookseller, nationwide.