Few times in history has the phrase “death before dishonor” been taken to such an extreme as at the siege of Masada. After holding out for months against the Romans, more than 900 Jews, including children, died in a suicide pact rather than surrender.
Only two women and five children survived the the first century A.D siege, according to the historian Josephus, who published the only known account.
In The Dovekeepers Alice Hoffman travels far from the New England setting of bestsellers such as “Practical Magic” and “Here on Earth” for the biggest, most ambitious book of her career. And, for the most part, she succeeds – delivering her best novel in years. Fans of both Hoffman’s earlier work and Anita Diamant’s bestselling “Red Tent,” another feminist take set in Biblical times, should devour the multipart epic.
Hoffman views the siege from the eyes of four outsiders: Yael, a girl who arrives pregnant with her dead lover’s child; Revka, who is tending her two grandsons, who have not spoken since witnessing the torture and murder of their mother; Shirah, a witch with ties to the Zealot leader; and Shirah's daughter, Aziza, who was raised as a warrior by her foster father in Moab. All the women are assigned to care for the dovecotes, which supply fertilizer for Masada’s gardens, a lowly task that allows them more freedom. In the beginning, the women, who are all guarding secrets, are wary of one another, but they ultimately form an alliance.
“The Dovekeepers” follows the arrival of all four to the fortress and the run-up to the massacre, thus prolonging the coming horror. Yael and her father, a Zealot assassin who blames Yael for her mother’s death in childbirth, escape the slaughter of the fall of Jerusalem. They flee into the desert with another assassin and his family. I found Yael’s story slow going initially, given her penchant for overwrought wallowing. (In fairness, she has plenty to wallow about.) But in the desert, Yael discovers something about herself: She wants to live, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to do so.
Once Yael and her father make it to Masada, the novel kicks into a higher gear. “The fortress was impenetrable, they said, the surrounding land so fierce no attack upon them would prove successful. The retreat had once been a palace built by King Herod, a place of unearthly beauty concealed by clouds.” There’s already a legend associated with Masada, which is passed around by the refugees, of a man who killed his family and then himself, rather than submit to the king. This is, of course, about to be relived on a more horrifying scale.
Hoffman occasionally tries to cram in too much research, which causes dead spots in the writing. Not surprisingly, given that she’s working from a distance of 2,000 years, there is dialogue that feels anachronistic, as when Yael flirtily tells a handsome slave who admires her red hair, “Be careful … you could get burned,” and he later tells her, “You think I don’t see you, but I do.”
But Hoffman is working with harrowing stuff, and “The Dovekeepers” only gains in power as the Roman soldiers move closer to their destination.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.