The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

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“I tasted grit between my teeth. I was a woman of the desert now, no longer the shy outsider, a city girl frightened of scorpions. I had become fierce, willing to do anything to get what I wanted. This was the way hunters were born. I felt that savagery inside of me, a dark glimmering of will that resolved to survive. If I wanted something it became mine. I sneaked up on migrating birds and caught them in my scarf, sometimes in my bare hands. I was cunning, a lioness.”

Every year or so for the past few years a book is written that dignifies the struggle of women and gives them a voice when they have so often been historically silenced. In 2009 it was The Help, a personal favorite of mine. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman is the book that personifies this trend for the year of 2011 in my eyes. Haunting and written in a breath-taking manner, it is a story of love, companionship, loss and faith. It’s a hidden secret perhaps but one that has truly redefined the art and literally beauty of storytelling.

As is so often the case with novels that affect me so deeply The Dovekeepers was a gift from my mother. I myself had picked it up from time to time while in a bookstore, but always put it down again for some reason. I would like to think I may have been saving it for myself. The story follows the stories of four fascinating women: Yael, the motherless daughter of a famed assassin who possesses more courage than any of the men around her, Revka, an elderly grandmother who now cares for her two young grandsons who have lost as much as her and are equally traumatized by it, Aziza, raised as boy until her teenage years who is just as fearless as any warrior and who earns the love of one just as fierce and brave as herself, and lastly Shirah, the so-called Witch of Moab, a woman who practices earthly and unknown magics and nurtures a forbidden love of her own that has influenced her all her life. While their tales are told individually, their lives converge together as they all come to Masada after fleeing persecution and find themselves the keepers of the vital doves who live on the mountain and help it thrive.

This is one of most beautifully written historical fictions I have ever read. It’s as simple as that. The historical details Hoffman includes are extensive and bring the story to life, but Hoffman succeeds at doing something beyond merely setting a historical stage for her characters. There are countless historical fictions out there in the literary world that do a sufficient job at doing just that, but it is rare for authors to truly submerge themselves and their readers in the historical realities of the time. Hoffman’s details are intimate, from the subtle description of the plants Shirah uses to perform her prayers and sacrifices, to the survival skills that emerge in Yael as she comes to love living in the desert. There is a sense of all things feminine, but that does not necessarily negate them to being of a weak or lacking nature. The characters contain layers of depth, so riddled with their own strife that you cannot help but feel for them and to grow attached to them as their lives change and they struggle to continue forward. Hoffman succeeds wonderfully at writing in such an elegant fashion while not crossing that line that leaves the reality of the situation blurred by excessive description or overly poetic story telling.

When I finished reading the book I read the acknowledgement, something I rarely do. In it Hoffman states that she’s not a historian in any way, but that she performed extensive research in preparation for writing this novel. I was slightly stunned when I read this, because the extent of historical knowledge woven into the story was to an extent that I could only assume a seasoned historian could provide. There’s no doubt that Hoffman touches on some very dark topics; the death and rapes of loved ones, the jealous rivalry and competition between women, deadly persecution, the realities of war and the atrocities soldiers perform. The stories of the four main women would be too hard to read if not for the perseverance and strength that Hoffman incorporates into their characters. They are all Jewish women fleeing the Roman armies who are trying to annihilate their people over two thousand years ago. Society is more familiar with the atrocities committed against the Jewish community in the past century, but it is important to remember that they have faced persecution consistently throughout history. Hoffman gives a glimpse into what these women might have struggled through, to not only protect themselves but also their children and the men they loved.

In so many ways the stories are based on such common elements of life and yet there is a literary complexity that makes The Dovekeepers a memorable read. For anyone who loves an intricate historical fiction, it is a must read. I would also venture to say that it’s a necessary read for anyone who enjoys a book that portrays the historical lives of women as they might have been. History itself often leaves the lives of women buried, because the documents left are so commonly written by men. Historical fiction opens the doorway to allow the stories of women to shine through, told in stories but often laced with historical truth. Much like my mother likely suspected The Dovekeepers is a profoundly touching book for any of the special women in your life.

Devon – athousandbooklife

Other books by Alice Hoffman: She has written extensively (including books for teens and children), but some of her more well known books include Turtle Moon (2002), Here on Earth (2010) and The Red Garden (2011)

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