Herbs and potions, love charms and secrets, the complex intimacies between mothers and daughters: It’s clear from the outset of The Dovekeepers that we are firmly in Alice Hoffman territory. But instead of the safe suburbs of New England, we have been transported back to the first century at Masada, the mountain fortress south of Jerusalem where 900 Jews held out against the Romans before committing mass suicide rather than submit to foreign rule. For The Dovekeepers, Hoffman was inspired by a trip to Masada and research into the classical world, including the work of Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian who recorded that the only survivors of this tragedy were two women and five children.
Hoffman retells this ancient story through the voices of four unique women, each of whom arrived at Masada and worked in the dovecotes—caring for the birds, collecting eggs and gathering fertilizer. Red-haired Yael, the daughter of a master assassin, becomes pregnant with the child of her father’s colleague. Revka, the baker’s wife, lost her husband and daughter at the hands of Roman soldiers and is now determined to protect her motherless grandsons. Young Aziza was raised as a warrior; she wants nothing more than to fight alongside the men in this last stand against the Romans. Finally there’s Shirah, Aziza’s mother, who grew up as the beloved daughter of a consort to the high priests and is the lover of Masada’s charismatic leader. Initially suspicious of one another, the women gradually grow close, sharing their secrets and developing a fierce loyalty to one another.
An ambitious novel, dense with vivid description of daily life in ancient times, The Dovekeepers combines archaeology and research with Hoffman’s own interest in the often untold lives of women and her passion for stories of magic and the natural world. Even though the tale’s outcome is well known, the storytelling is bound to satisfy any reader.