In 70 AD, following the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans, a community of 900 Jewish rebels formed a last stronghold at Masada, a mountain fortress in the Judean desert where Herod had built a palace a century earlier. There they lived for several years until the Romans laid siege to the mountain. When it became obvious that Masada's defeat was imminent, the inhabitants chose mass suicide rather than being enslaved or murdered. Only two women and five children survived.
The destruction of Masada and the defiance of its defenders was, for years, a unifying symbol for the contemporary state of Israel. More recently, the accepted truth of what happened on that mountain has been challenged by some as a myth that glorifies extremism and refusal to compromise.
In The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman's haunting re-imagining of this historical event, already on bestseller lists, distinctions between fact and fable fall away as the reader is plunged into a world as grounded in the physical detail of reality as it is charged with the superhuman magic of myth. From the marriage of the two emerges a vision of what it might have been like to be alive during that devastating era in the wilderness of the Judean desert.
Hoffman has read the one historical account of Masada that has come down to us, that of Roman-Jewish historian Titus Josephus Flavius. She has absorbed interpretations of the archeological evidence unearthed at the site, and she has clearly paid attention to the ongoing arguments about what really did or did not happen on that isolated mountaintop more than 2,000 years ago. It is the silence of the place itself, though, that seems to have spoken to her most deeply. In that silence, she has heard a story replete with brutality and tenderness, bravery and cowardice, faith and utter despair.
The story is told sequentially by four women who have found refuge at Masada: Yael, an assassin's daughter whose father cannot forgive her for her birth, which killed her mother; Revka, a woman whose happy life as a baker's wife was shattered by the destruction of her village and the murder and brutalization of her husband and daughter by the Romans; Aziza, raised as a boy by a warrior stepfather; and Shirah, whose practice of magic is both sought after and feared.
There is a quality of the archetypal in Hoffman's characterization of these women, and each of them routinely performs feats that seem so far beyond the capacities of our species that they veer toward the supernatural. But the emotional dilemmas that they face and the choices they must make are all realistic, and will resonate with any human heart. The four of them work in the dovecote that provides the necessary fertilizer for the community's gardens and orchards. They also pursue love in all its forms with an intensity that matches the passion for death embodied in their warrior husbands, fathers, sons and lovers, a passion for destruction that blossoms in all human cultures in times of war.
The Dovekeepers is a long book, longer than it should be, with far too many details, images and unnecessary plot twists that bog down the story in places where it otherwise would soar. Hoffman took five years to research and write it, and while some of that research sits too heavily on the surface of the story, the depth of her knowledge is reflected both in the degree to which she immerses her readers in the physical and emotional world of her characters and the ease with which she embraces the complex and contradictory realities of the story that she is bringing to life.
She is unsparing in her portrayal of the cruelties of the era, including those of the leader of the compound, still revered by many today, who commanded that his followers choose death over enslavement. But Hoffman is at the peak of her powers as a writer when she depicts the countless ways, large and small, that her four women defiantly choose life. "Being human means losing everything we love best in the world," one whispers to another at a terrible moment. "But would you ask to be anything else?"
Nancy Richler's new novel, The Imposter Bride, will be published in the spring of 2012.