It is recorded that two women and five children walked out of Masada in 74 C.E., survivors of a final act of defiance, when all hope had been lost. The Dovekeepers, meticulously researched for five years, transports us to this ancient time and is filled with such rich detail, one can almost smell the cumin-dusted challah browning as it bakes. Without a doubt, this is Alice Hoffman's finest work to date, catapulting it far and above her previous endeavors.
While The Dovekeepers provides us with a plethora of intricate descriptions, weaving them deftly throughout and pulling all of our senses into play, it is the superbly crafted cast of characters who provide the heart and soul of this tale. Four women speak with such strong voices that Masada, the fortress built by Herod on the western edge of the Judean desert, sizzles with life.
Roughly divided into four sections, the novel is structured such that each woman tells her story and then steps back so that the next voice can be heard. As they recount their own lives, they also voice impressions of each other. Each woman is defined not only by how she sees herself but also by how she is seen. Each is greatly weighted by her past. We are introduced to tales of heroism and bravery, defiance and sacrifice. Each is fiercely private with secrets to guard. Each has guilt to wrestle with, and each is determined to protect and watch over loved ones. Two have crossed paths before, only one aware of it. On arrival to Masada, they are all assigned to work with the doves.
"In the days that followed, I kept to myself during my hours at the dovecotes, attending to whatever tasks I was given. I was pleasant enough, but I spoke only when others spoke to me. I was their servant, nothing more. I wasn't one of them and didn't pretend to be. I had had a friend once, and I had betrayed her. I didn't need another."
Soon their lives become intertwined in intricate ways, and deep bonds are formed. The resilience, the sheer force of will that each exhibits, serves as a reminder that mightiness does not always have to do with physical strength. And that even in a male-dominated world, the power of the feminine perseveres.
Though isolated, Masada's population of 960 men, women and children work hard to maintain a semblance of day-to-day life within their rock cliff fortress. Doves are a crucial part of their survival, their droppings, spread in the fields, make the soil rich.
"Without the doves, this fortress would have already fallen. The leavings scattered in the orchard have turned our world green and lush, nourishing the roots of the dates and olives, feeding the almond trees, causing them to burst into blooms of pink and white clouds. Without the doves, we would have starved long ago."
Both the doves and the dovecotes provide a continual focal point in the story. Bountiful in symbolism on many levels, there is an abundance of metaphors to explore and reflect on, making The Dovekeepers a wonderful selection for book groups.
Unfolding against the inevitability of what we know is to come, the story's tension builds under its ever growing shadow; after Rome defeats all other Jewish strongholds it finally turns its full attention to Masada. Unable to attack via the winding path, a huge ramp is built, enabling Roman soldiers to breech the fortress walls. As the ramp grows higher each day, it becomes apparent to those watching from above that Rome would prove victorious. Enslavement, humiliation and death awaiting them, and the people of Masada collectively decide to take their own lives.
This mind-numbing tragic decree, incomprehensible to fathom, somehow becomes strangely understandable. The soulful stories of these women, so masterfully woven for us - of fate, love, sorrow and destiny - put an all too human face on an historical time steeped in cruelty and oppression. The Dovekeepers serves to remind us that history is so much more than the recording of events and places. Inevitably it is about people, and it teaches us that across the ages, simple human needs and desires have - and always will - remain the same.
This review is from the April 4, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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