by Alice Hoffman
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
A strikingly different portrayal of the Siege of Masada, The Dovekeepers focuses on the lives of four fictional women, workers in the dovecote, among the Jews occupying Herod's abandoned fortress. Jewish rebels first came to Masada around 66 A.D. Refugees from Jerusalem joined them after Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70. Not until 72 did the Roman army besiege Masada. Unfolding in the years before the siege, the novel portrays Masada's occupiers as a contentious and diverse group, many of them embittered by grief.
The women of the dovecote, each in her own way, violate Jewish laws. Yael is the daughter of a Sicarii assassin and a mother who died before giving birth to her. "In that moment the map of my life arose upon my skin in a burst of red marks .... I was taken from my mother's womb, cut out with a sharp knife. I am convinced I heard my father's roar of grief ..." Her father's contempt and neglect have almost convinced her that she murdered her mother, so after they flee into the desert during the destruction of the Temple, it seems hardly a more damning violation to take pleasure in the arms of a traveling companion, a married man.
Extensively researched and richly evoking life in pre-siege Masada, The Dovekeepers would not be a proper Alice Hoffman novel without a thread of magic running through it. Shirah, another dovekeeper, burns candles to the goddess Ashtoreth and knows forbidden charms for healing and other purposes, a dangerously open secret. If the novel is often too padded with repetition, slowing the pace, it is also full of beautifully written passages. As Yael flees Jerusalem, "every breath included remnants of the Temple, so that we inhaled that which was meant to stand throughout eternity." By focusing on the women, Hoffman turns the usual Masada tale inside out, celebrating not the defiant sacrifice of mass suicide but the courage that gives and preserves life. (2011; 512 pages, including an Acknowledgements section discussing the research behind the novel)
More about The Dovekeepers at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels about Masada:
The Antagonists by Ernest K. Gann (1971; also titled Masada), about the Siege of Masada. More info
Masada: The Last Fortress by Gloria D. Miklowitz (1998), for young readers aged 12 and up. More info
Nonfiction about Masada:
Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand by Yigael Yadin (1966), by an archaeologist who excavated at Masada during the 1960s. More info
The Masada Myth by Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1995), by a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. More info
Jerusalem's Traitor: Josephus, Masada and the Fall of Jerusalem by Desmond Seward (2009), about the Jewish historian Josephus, whose eyewitness account of the fall of Masada (disputed by some modern writers) is the only surviving contemporaneous account. More info
The Masada Myth by Nachman Ben-Yehuda
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