Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I picked up Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers because I visited Masada* last fall. The novel is historical fiction following the stories of four Jewish women, where they came from, and what led them to the fortress. 

Also, I found the cover to be striking.
Here's the thing: I should not be two thirds of the way through a book about Jews at Masada and think, "Finally! The Romans are here!"

But that is what I thought, and here is why:

1. Alice Hoffman really Wants You To Know about Masada. She accomplishes this by having her first-person narrators constantly explain, "Among our people, we highly value [element of nature] because of its role in [sacred practice]." It feels like the action is interrupted by Wikipedia blurbs about ancient Jewish culture rather than letting the reader use context and basic historical knowledge to put the pieces together. Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is a historical novel that does this well, mostly by using children and outsiders as well-rounded audience surrogates.

2. The heaviness is relentless. I'm not asking for comic relief; I don't expect a book about Masada to be a laugh a minute. But I do expect a break from Poignant Metaphorical Truths, which punctuate each page. A narrator can't describe a lion or a mountain or a loaf of bread without it quickly becoming a symbol for her own soul.

3. The narrators are smart, independent, sexually liberated women with progressive ideas about gender roles and an irreverence for religion (except for a smattering of goddess-worship). In the eyes of these women, anyone following the law must be unenlightened, oppressed, or manipulating the system. To me, this sounds more like a 21st century secular woman than a 1st century Jewish woman.

Ashtoreth worship was more believable in Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, since Jacob's wives were not Jews before they married him. I would have bought it if one or two of The Dovekeepers' narrators had played fast and loose with the laws of Moses -- it's not like Israelites had a spotless, idolatry-free record --  but all four together formed a polemic against the patriarchal oppression of organized religion. Even one devout, sympathetic character who actually cared about the law and the temple could have saved the novel from its agenda.

Even still, the story has been stuck in my head since I read it. I don't think that is from the strength of Hoffman's story so much as the intrigue and mystery of the historical event. The four narrators were same-y, and the other characters may as well have been little green army men for all there was to distinguish one from another.

The night after I finished the book, I had a dream that reflected my emotional attachment by the end of the book: Little army men were slaughtering one another in my kitchen cabinets, getting blood on my Pyrex. In the dream, I mostly remember thinking how glad I was to have glass storage ware instead of Tupperware, since I figured blood would stain the plastic.

Does anyone know if there's a better work of fiction about Masada? I haven't seen Masada, the miniseries about the siege; if you have, do you recommend it?

*Quick synopsis: After the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, some Jews fled to Masada, an abandoned fortress on a mountain in the desert. The whole mountain-desert combo made it a handy place to defend, but after an extended Roman siege -- SPOILER ALERT** -- all 900-something Jews chose mass suicide over becoming Roman slaves. Two women and five children somehow survived to tell the story to the Romans. 

**Is it still a spoiler if it's a well-known historical event? Let's ask Linda Holmes.

1 comment:

  1. I totally read a great novel about Masada once, and totally can't remember the name. Sorry for being totally unhelpful.

    I enjoyed your mini-review of this book. You should review everything you read, and put each review up here for your friends to read!

    What are you reading now? Reading any good books? Do you get to do a lot of reading?