Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Another name for this book could be The Mists of Avalon for Jews, with Shira, the Witch of Moab, standing in for Morgaine, and Eleazar ben Ya’ir as Uther Pendragon. Not really, it’s not an exact matchup, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Miriam Zimmer Bradley’s book (about the Arthurian legend) as I read this retelling of the Masada story from the points of view of several women, some of whom have more than a passing familiarity with witchcraft and all of whom endure great sorrow and hardship, only to end up on the wrong end of a Roman battering ram.

Like The Mists of Avalon, The Dovekeepers could have been about 25% shorter. I thought it featured a bit too much symbolism (Yael’s red hair, the flame tree, the lion’s mane, I get it) and it was a bit repetitive. But it’s also a story of great beauty, lyrically written and very moving, and you can skim over the annoying parts without losing anything.

Does everyone know the story of Masada, the mountain fortress where 900 Jewish zealots held out for three years against a Roman legion determined to conquer them? When faced with certain defeat the men, women, and children committed suicide rather than submit to Roman domination. The Dovekeepers is the story of four women who work together in the dovecote during the years of the siege, and whose fathers, brothers, and lovers are among the men who defend the fortress. The story features as much in the way of bloody childbirth as it does bloody battles, and while it’s clear that Hoffman did a huge amount of research, the exact details of the military operation take a backseat to the shifting relationships among the women. Though now that I think of it, we do get the obligatory “girl disguised as a boy warrior” subplot, something that is almost de rigueur in contemporary epic fiction.

My book club members liked this book more than I did, though I came away from the meeting with some newfound appreciation for the structure and the writing. Alice Hoffman is a prolific writer of popular novels that feature elements of magical realism. The Dovekeepers is far more ambitious than anything else of hers I’ve come across and it works well despite my few quibbles.

(Book 15, 2012)


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