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Dovekeepers (Hoffman)

The Dovekeepers
Alice Hoffman, 2011
Scribner
512 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451617474

Summary
The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of imagination and research, set in ancient Israel.

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman’s novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path.

Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and an expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.

The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love. Taking more than five years to be written, The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—March 16, 1952
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Adelphi Univ.; M.A., Stanford Univ.
Currently—lives in Boston, Massachusetts


Born in the 1950s to college-educated parents who divorced when she was young, Alice Hoffman was raised by her single, working mother in a blue-collar Long Island neighborhood. Although she felt like an outsider growing up, she discovered that these feelings of not quite belonging positioned her uniquely to observe people from a distance. Later, she would hone this viewpoint in stories that captured the full intensity of the human experience.

After high school, Hoffman went to work for the Doubleday factory in Garden City. But the eight-hour, supervised workday was not for her, and she quit before lunch on her first day! She enrolled in night school at Adelphi University, graduating in 1971 with a degree in English. She went on to attend Stanford University's Creative Writing Center on a Mirrellees Fellowship. Her mentor at Stanford, the great teacher and novelist Albert Guerard, helped to get her first story published in the literary magazine Fiction. The story attracted the attention of legendary editor Ted Solotaroff, who asked if she had written any longer fiction. She hadn't — but immediately set to work. In 1977, when Hoffman was 25, her first novel, Property Of, was published to great fanfare.

Since that remarkable debut, Hoffman has carved herself a unique niche in American fiction. A favorite with teens as well as adults, she renders life's deepest mysteries immediately understandable in stories suffused with magic realism and a dreamy, fairy-tale sensibility. (In a 1994 article for the New York Times, interviewer Ruth Reichl described the magic in Hoffman's books as a casual, regular occurrence — "...so offhand that even the most skeptical reader can accept it.") Her characters' lives are transformed by uncontrollable forces — love and loss, sorrow and bliss, danger and death.

Hoffman's 1997 novel Here on Earth was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick, but even without Winfrey's powerful endorsement, her books have become huge bestsellers — including three that have been adapted for the movies: Practical Magic (1995), The River King (2000), and her YA fable Aquamarine (2001).

Hoffman is a breast cancer survivor; and like many people who consider themselves blessed with luck, she believes strongly in giving back. For this reason, she donated her advance from her 1999 short story collection Local Girls to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA

Extras
From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Hoffman has written a number of children's books, including Fireflies: A Winter's Tale (1999), Horsefly (2000), and Moondog (2004).

Aquamarine was written for Hoffman's best friend, Jo Ann, who dreamed of the freedom of mermaids as she battled brain cancer.

Here on Earth is a modern version of Hoffman's favorite novel, Wuthering Heights.

• Hoffman has been honored with the Massachusetts Book Award for her teen novel Incantation.

When asked what books most influenced her life or career, here's what she said:

Edward Eager's brilliant series of suburban magic: Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Magic or Not, Knight's Castle, The Time Garden, Seven-Day Magic, The Well Wishers. Anything by Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, J. D. Salinger, Grace Paley. My favorite book: Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
Nothing [Hoffman's] written would prepare you for the gravitas of her new book, an immersive historical novel about Masada during the Roman siege in the 1st century. The Dovekeepers is an enormously ambitious, multi-part story, richly decorated with the details of life 2,000 years ago.... Hoffman doesn't ignore the larger-than-life leaders and their deadly clash, but her creative path into Masada is from the ground up: not through its generals and warriors, but through its mothers, daughters and wives. The result is a high-minded feminist story of unassailable seriousness.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Almost too dense to bear, Hoffman's 23rd novel is brimming with doom, based on the story of the mass suicide of Jewish Zealots at Masada as recorded by the historian Josephus. Set in the first century, the blood-soaked saga unfolds from the perspectives of four courageous Jewish women whose lives converge in the dovecotes of the rebel desert stronghold. Yael is an assassin's daughter who flees Jerusalem as it falls to the Romans, arriving pregnant with the child of her father's married colleague. Revka, her husband murdered by the Romans, comes with her two grandsons, rendered mute after witnessing their mother's disembowelment by Roman soldiers. Shirah, from Alexandria, possibly a witch, brings her beautiful daughter Aziza, who having learned the ways of men among the tribesmen of Moab, uses her warrior's skills to fight in this last stand against the Roman legions. Suspicious of one another early on, the women, each with her own secrets and talents, powerful lovers and magical spells, soon develop a loyalty so fierce that they are willing to sacrifice everything for each other and for the children they are entrusted with. Hoffman can tell a tale and knows about creating compassionate characters, but the leaden archaic prose style she uses tells more than it shows. Massive descriptive paragraphs slow the action, until, by the end, the reader is simply worn out.
Publishers Weekly


Only two women and five children of more than 900 people survived the Roman siege of Masada in the year 73 C.E. after the suicide pact of the Jewish rebels there, according to the historian Josephus. In this well-researched novel, Hoffman vividly brings this tragedy to life, as four women who take care of the dovecote at the fortress tell their stories. Seeking refuge at Masada after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple are Yael, the daughter and sister of Sicarii, professional assassins, and Revka, who with her two mute grandsons has just witnessed the horrific murder of the boys' mother in the desert. Shirah and her warrior daughter Aziza come from Moab. Considered a healer and a witch, Shirah still worships the ancient goddess Ashtoreth. Hoffman finds poetry and beauty, dignity and honor, even in those perilous, blood-soaked times. VERDICT This powerful and gripping novel about survival and endurance will stay with you for a long time. —Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Library Journal


Hoffman births literature from tragedy: the destruction of Jerusalem's Temple, the siege of Masada and the loss of Zion.... The plot is intriguingly complex, with only a single element unresolved. An enthralling tale rendered with consummate literary skill.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions

 1. The novel is split into four principal parts, with each of the main characters—Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah—narrating one section. Which of these women did you find most appealing, and why? Were you surprised to find you had compassion for characters who were morally complex and often made choices that later caused guilt and sorrow?

2. Yael describes her relationship with Ben Simon as "a destroying sort of love" (p. 46). What does she mean by that? Are there other relationships in the novel that could be described in the same way?

3. From Yael's setting free the Romans' lion, to Shirah's childhood vision of a fish in the Nile, to the women's care of the doves, animals are an important component in the book. What did animals mean to the people of this ancient Jewish society, and what specific symbolic forms do they take in the novel?

4. The figure of Wynn, "The Man from the North," who comes to serve the women in the dovecote, is based upon archeological finds at Masada. In what ways does Wynn come to bring the women together? Compare Yael's relationship with Ben Simon to her relationship with Wynn.

5. How do spells function in the novel? What is the relationship between Shirah's Jewish beliefs and her use of magic? If you have read other Alice Hoffman novels that include mystical elements—such as Practical Magic or Fortune's Daughter—how do they compare to The Dovekeepers and its use of magic?

6. How do Shirah's daughters react to the intimate friendship that develops between Yael and their mother? Is Shirah a good mother or not?

7. What do you make of Channa's attempt, essentially, to kidnap Yael's baby Arieh? Is Channa different from the other major female characters in the book? Do you find your opinion of her changes?

8. "You don't fight for peace, sister," Nahara tells Aziza. "You embrace it." (p. 343) What do you think of Nahara's decision to join the Essenes? Is she naÏve or a true believer? Do you see similarities between the Essenes and the early Christian movement?

9. Why is the Roman Legion preparing to attack the Jews at Masada? From historical references in the book, as well as your own knowledge of history, explain the roots of the conflict. Do you feel the lives of the women in The Dovekeepers echo the lives of women in the modern world who are experiencing war and political unrest?

10. Revka's son-in-law, the warrior known as The Man from the Valley, asks Aziza, "Did you not think this is what the world was like?" (p. 378). Describe the circumstances of this question. After all her training for battle, why is Aziza unprepared for the experience of attacking a village filled with women and children?

11. In the final pages of the book, Yael sums up those who perished at Masada, remembering them as "men who refused to surrender and women who were ruled by devotion" (p. 478). Do you agree with her description?

12. For the women at Masada, dreams contain important messages, ghosts meddle in the lives of the living, and spells can remedy a number of human ills. How does their culture's acceptance of the mystical compare to our culture's view on such things today? Do mystical and religious elements overlap? How do they compare to your own views?

13. In the letter below, Hoffman explains that the historical foundation of her story comes from Josephus, the first-century historian who has written the only account of the massacre. How does knowing that the novel is based on history and archeological findings affect your reading of the book?

14. Women's knowledge in The Dovekeepers is handed down from mother to daughter, sister to sister, friend to friend. Why do you think it is so difficult to know what the lives of ancient women were really like? Do you see any connection with the way in which your own family stories are handed down through the generations?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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