Masada is a powerful place because it has a powerful story, and the magnitude of what happened there so long ago eloquently comes through in Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers. Told through four, first-person accounts, we re-live not only the trials on Masada itself, but the invasion of Jerusalem and the flight of the Jews from the holiest of cities.
Each narrator has a different piece of the story to tell, sharing their own struggles and sorrows even as they guide you up to the tragedy which forever marks Masada. Yael is only a child when she's forced to leave her home with a father who doesn't love her. She grows into a determined and resourceful young woman over the course of her journey. Revka is a fighter amidst all the horror and tragedy she witnesses. She's fiercely loyal to her family and friends. Aziza is trapped between genders, happiest as a warrior navigating the uncertain times by taking action. Shirah is known as the "Witch of Moab," and possess more passion and intelligence than one would imagine for a woman forced to survive on her own. All four women come together inside the dovecote as they care for the Masada doves who help sustain the community, for a time, in more ways than one.
What struck me most about this story was how unique each character was, even beyond the four, central storytellers. When you hear about Masada, from a historical perspective, the community of Jews who lived out there are just that, a big group. Because individual stories would have to be primarily fictionalized, that personal element was always missing. It never detracted from the impact of the story. It didn't stop the tears in my eyes as I watched the sun come up standing on the mountain where my ancestors gave their lives. But, I'm glad Hoffman made character development such a critical part of her story.
This really is a beautiful book, full of hope and sadness that mirrors the environment Masada was -- a temporary oasis in an unforgiving desert. Hoffman builds such complete characters into this hopeless tale, giving them so much life, that it is painful to read the inevitable as the book concludes. She makes her women smart and strong, resilient and defiant in ways that make them all survivors regardless of how the story ends. Never once did anything feel out of place in the narrative; it's a perfect combination of history and imagination.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Dovekeepers and highly recommend it. Hoffman is a favorite author of mine in general, but this departure from the relative present, so far into the past, is really something special.
Other Alice Hoffman books reviewed on this site: