Friday, January 25, 2013

The Dovekeepers

Alice Hoffman's novel The Dovekeepers recounts the story of the Jews of Masada in 73 CE (Common Era, aka AD) who resisted the Roman army, dying in martyrdom rather than be slaughtered by their enemies or taken into slavery.
Through the first-person narratives of four unusual women she recreates the disparate events that brought refugees, warriors and the devout to the nearly inaccessible mountaintop palace built for King Herod centuries before.

Yael, whose voice we first hear, is an assassin's daughter who flees Jerusalem with her father as the Romans conquer that city and destroy the Second Temple. They survive in the desert, a fitting locale for a fierce woman whose element is fire, and who identifies with the lion, ruler of the hottest summer month. They seek her brother Amram, a warrior, and follow rumor of him, finding him finally in Masada where he is a man of renown. In that city she joins the other women who care for the doves, gathering the birds' dung to fertilize the fields and orchards that make the redoubt a place of plenty.

Next we meet Revka, widow of a baker, refugee with her daughter, son-in-law and young grandsons from the sacking of their village. Unaccustomed to the dangers surrounding them, they linger at an oasis where the boys and Revka bear witness as renegade soldiers rape and murder her daughter, while her son-in-law is out praying - for it is Yom Kippur. Revka later poisons the soldiers, but their deeds cannot be undone. When her son-in-law returns he goes mad, and the four of them journey on to Masada where his only desire is to join the warriors there, and kill. The boys are struck mute by the horrors they have seen, and Revka only wills herself to live so she can care for them. The dovekeepers when they arrive are Shirah, a woman from Alexandria, and her two daughters, Aziza and Nahara. 

The third portion of the book is narrated by Aziza, sixteen when she begins her story. Her mother's eldest, she does not know her father. Her sister and brother are children of a chieftain from Judea, one of a tribe of bloodthirsty horsemen who raid caravans crossing the desert. This chieftain honors Shirah though he purchased her, and raises Aziza to ride and hunt. The girl, whose element is steel, loves the ways of men. Once her mother declares she has a signal from her lover, the family slips away in the chieftain's absence to the shores of the Dead Sea, buying passage. Once across, they make their way to Masada. There Aziza attracts the eye of Amram, Yael's brother - but it is an escaped Roman slave brought by a raiding party to the fortress and put to work (still a slave) assisting the dovekeepers, who understands her skill with weapons and teaches her archery. She lives a double life: as a woman, restricted in her actions; and as a warrior, dressed as a youth, a deadly shot and fearless but unable to reveal her identity.

At last we hear Shirah's voice. She is a witch and prophetess whose element is water, taught several languages along with knowledge of herbs, spells and divining by her mother, who sent her from Alexandria at thirteen to be safe with kinsmen. There she falls in love with her cousin, who later becomes the charismatic figure inspiring the people of Masada to live in relative equality - men and women are treated differently, but there are no rich and poor - all share in bounty and starvation alike, devoted to God. Eleazar and Shirah have loved each other since they met, though he is married already. When she is discovered to be pregnant - and unwed - she is cast out of his household, from whence she falls in with the chieftain. She brings her children to Masada so she can be near her love; here she is feared and hated, though individually women seek her out for help in securing a man's love, curing ailments or easing childbirth.

As each tells her story, we move closer to the Roman army's siege of Masada and the martyrdom of the 900 Jews who defended it until they were overwhelmed. There is much in this book that is grim and brutal, and none of the characters have clean hands except the Essenes, a nonviolent sect anticipating the end of this world, who eschew possessions except the scrolls they copy to leave buried in jars in different places: the Dead Sea scrolls. The Romans do not spare them, but their writings survive in hiding.

There are fanciful elements to the novel: a cloak of invisibility used by the assassin; a woman who faces down a lion and a leopard unscathed; a witch who can summon a deluge; a slave kept useless in chains for months while his keepers starve; the convenience with which characters' paths diverge and reconnect and destinies are sorted out. And the editor in me finds Hoffman's redundancy exasperating - in succeeding paragraphs she tells and retells the same moments, as though she doubts the reader's attention. Nevertheless, she's done her research, and though I'm no historian, in the main I trust her recounting of this group's rebellion against Rome, their courage and struggle to survive, and in the end their accord, their willingness to die at each other's hand not the Romans'. Hoffman has brought history to life with her strong characters and visceral imagery.