The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman: A review

I read this book during a time when the right-wing's war against women in this country was heating up to boil over and the mainstream media was finally beginning to take notice. Thus, I experienced the book through the prism of modern events. Not exactly what the author had in mind, I suspect, but unavoidable under the circumstances. 

I read the book with rising feelings of anger and frustration as I realized that the story that Alice Hoffman was telling about a religion and culture from more than 2,000 years ago would fit right in with the world view of fundamentalists of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths today. This was a religion and a culture in which women had no value. They were strictly expendable throw-away people. Again, I don't think this was the message the author hoped to impart, but it was driven home again and again as she introduced us to the four dovekeepers of Masada. 

The myth of Masada is a persistent one. Masada was a fortress built on a mountain by the Jewish king, Herod. It was a marvel of engineering and virtually impregnable. Thus, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. and Jews were hounded from the city, many of them made their way to Masada and to other strongholds that had been built by the now long-dead Herod. Eventually, around 900 people made Masada their home. But the Romans were not content to let them linger there. The Tenth Legion was brought in to lay siege to the place and they finally overran it. The story goes, as told by the historian Josephus, that when the Romans entered the stronghold, they found that all the people were dead. They had committed mass suicide. Allegedly, two women and five children survived the massacre. Hoffman imagines lives for the survivors, as well as the lives and deaths of those who didn't survive. It must be said that there is slim archaeological evidence to support the story of the mass suicide, but that shouldn't trouble us here because this is historical fiction, with the accent on fiction. 

Hoffman weaves an interesting tale of four women who have made their way to Masada after the destruction of the Temple. She tells the story in their four voices; the voices of the Daughter of the Assassin, the Wife of the Baker, the Lover of the Warrior, and the Witch of Moab. These are strong and resilient women, yet without value in their culture. Unfortunately, their four voices sound very much the same, virtually indistinguishable. They might be four aspects of the same character.

One of the things which I found fascinating about this story was the reliance by that culture on magic. They turned repeatedly to potions, spells, and divinations in their attempts to control and overcome the consequences of their actions and of their environment or to understand or propitiate their God. 

It was interesting also to see that the Roman legionnaires were depicted as bloodthirsty and without mercy, but the Jewish warriors, who committed exactly the same acts - with the exception of crucifiction - are portrayed as heroes. When you do it in the name of Adonai, it's okay. I have a bit of a problem with that philosophy. 

Hoffman chose to tell her tale in a very straightforward manner, using mostly simple declarative sentences. It was an effective writing strategy which seemed right for this story. I confess I have not read any other works by her and so I don't know if this is her usual way of writing, but, in this instance, I thought it worked very well.


  1. The stories of four courageous women from long ago whose lives and spirits are intertwined is spellbinding. Another brilliant Alice Hoffman novel.

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