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Alice Hoffman, author of more than 20 novels, has written a new book, “The Dovekeepers.” This historical novel takes place in Judea during and after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century (70 C.E.). The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his “The Jewish War,” wrote the only known account of the siege. In it he reports two women and five children escaped and afterward told their story to the Romans. Josephus, born Joseph ben Mattathias, later became a Roman citizen.
The story is about four fictional women, from different parts of the region and with very different backgrounds, who have each fled persecution at home and arrived at Masada just before the siege and massacre. Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah form a community of sorts while tending the doves that were essential to the compound; the eggs supplied food, and excrement provided the fertilizer that encouraged at least some crops to grow in the desert. Each of these women narrates her own story so the novel is split into four sections. Gradually the reader learns of their separate pasts as the women are drawn together as Masada’s dovekeepers.
Eventually the Romans lay siege to Masada, a mountain fortress overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea, and the 900 inhabitants know their days are numbered. After holding out for months, the inhabitants die in a suicide pact rather than surrender.
Ms. Hoffman is a thorough researcher. Her character depiction is excellent and each character’s voice is distinct. The novel however, is 500 pages long, and the story is drawn out and moves slowly at times. Knowledge of some biblical history would help in the understanding of this tragic episode that took place 2,000 years ago.