Flunking Sainthood

Surviving dovecotes at Masada helped to spark Alice Hoffman's imagination

When I was nineteen years old I traveled for a month in Israel as part of a college Wintersession experience. Israel is always a contentious place, but especially at that time during the height of the intifada; any naïve idealism I may have harbored about walking in the places Jesus walked was stunted by the violence that was part of daily life there, as well as the commercialism of vendors hawking their wares at every religious site. (To wit: the Madonna & Child jewelry shop on Manger Square in Bethlehem.)

One place that entirely exceeded my expectations, however, was Masada. I hadn’t known much about this ancient fortress, which had been created by the Romans but seized in the 60s by a group of militant Jews, only to be forcibly retaken by the Romans in 72-73. Perched on cliffs more than a thousand feet high, Masada was thought to be impregnable—which it obviously wasn’t, but it was certainly a tough place to assault.

It took the Romans months to seize the fortress, a dramatic time in history that was captured thirty years ago in a TV miniseries starring Peter O’Toole as the attacking Roman commander. One of the best things about the miniseries is that it was filmed on location. Although at the time the performances were considered to be of Emmy quality, I’m not sure they quite stand the test of time. Mostly, Peter O’Toole just looks constipated.

This is all a great deal of background for the point of this post, which is to highlight a remarkable novel about Masada’s last days. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman tells multiple stories of Masada from the perspective of fictional female characters, all of whom are carefully and believably drawn.

It’s so hard to do historical fiction well. For example, I blogged in September about some of the flaws I found in the novel One Thousand White Women, which I considered to be well-researched as history but poor fiction, staffed with stock characters who bordered on caricature. Hoffman’s novel, by contrast, is what historical fiction should be: a seamless blend of meticulous research and well-drawn people and situations. The task of the historical novelist is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange; this is only accomplished by realizing that people from the past are exactly like us even while honoring the truth of L.P. Hartley’s observation that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It’s a tricky, ironic balance, and I think Hoffman’s novel achieves it.

The Dovekeepers centers around four women who keep the doves at Masada, gathering their precious droppings that will help fertilize the fields and make the unyielding desert fecund. All four women (Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah) have suffered from the violence of the era—mostly courtesy of the Roman Empire but sometimes also at the hands of an extremist sect of their own people. All four have secrets that they tend as carefully as they do the doves. Hoffman expertly weaves their stories together as she highlights each character in turn.

The reviews of the book have been mostly positive; Amazon called it a masterpiece and one of the best novels of 2011. Publishers Weekly, however, found it ponderous and overly long. I don’t agree with that assessment, though it’s certainly not a light read. (PW also criticized the novel as “brimming with doom.” Well, it’s about Masada! Not exactly a cheery story. What were they expecting?)

I’m not going to give away the ending, though many know the story about what allegedly happened to the people at Masada during the invasion. The ancient historian Josephus tells us that the Jews committed mass suicide just before the Romans finished the ramp that would secure their victory, and that the Romans entered into a ghost town. The legend is that only two women and five children survived. (Many archeologists disagree with the mass suicide theory, because only a couple dozen skeletons have been found at the site.)

All I’ll say about Hoffman’s treatment is that it is imaginative, even brilliant.  This is going to be an excellent choice for women’s book clubs, especially those that enjoy serious literary fiction. It’s not an easy or breezy read, but it is certainly a worthwhile one.



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