The sheer scale of The Dovekeepers might appear initially off-putting, from the historical aspect, to the length of the book, to the fact that the novel follows four characters rather than one. But believe me when I say that the investment of my heart and my time was entirely worth it.
I have always enjoyed historical novels, especially those told from alternate perspectives to what you commonly find. I’ve read many books about sieges and war that were told from the perspective of young men, older men, leaders, and commoners, but rarely have I read one that allowed women to have their voices heard. Usually, war pushes women to the sidelines, allowing them to appear as victims or faceless casualties, a backdrop for warring men to complete their hero arc. But this book really took me into the minds of the women in the middle of conflict, with their own faults and horrors, their own desires and power, their own ache to be useful and strong to protect their families and themselves. One of these women is a murderer, another is an adulteress who proudly carries her baby to term, another is struggling under her own grief as well as the silence and pain of the men who could not protect her or her daughter. I think it’s because of this that The Dovekeepers really spoke to me – the sheer humanity of these women, and their imperfections.
Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic) took five years to write this incredible novel, based 70 CE, in which a Roman legion held 900 Jews under siege on Masada for many months. According to some ancient historians, only two women and five children were left alive. While this is occasionally contested, the siege of Masada was an extraordinary event in history, and Hoffman has chosen to write with the belief that those survivors had a story to tell. The Dovekeepers is that story, following four women who find themselves – through various turns of fate – on Masada during that siege.
Revka is a mother, who lost her daughter to violence and cruelty, and cares for her two grandsons who haven’t spoken since the tragedy. Yael is a pariah, whose mother died giving birth to her, for which her assassin father has never forgiven her. Shirah knows old magic and medicine, and is as revered as she is reviled by the people in the fort. Aziza was raised as a boy, a warrior, by her adoptive father before she and her mother left her home to go to Masada, where she must be a girl again.
While heavy with historical detail, the novel is not a textbook. Hoffman takes creative liberties in creating her heroines, keeping their feet set firmly in documented history, and allowing the reader to see it through their eyes and find themselves within them. I understood intimately why these women were chosen as my guides for this story; their resilience inspired my own, regardless of the centuries between us and our circumstances.
While all the women are inherently human, complex, deeply developed, and strong, for me personally Aziza’s story really struck a chord. It’s rare that stories based in ancient times offer women the chance to show their fierce strength as soldiers, and rarer still when they are allowed to keep their femininity while doing so. Aziza not only fights alongside her people, she fights alongside her lover who knows her for who she is, and admires and reveres her for it. Aziza is interesting, too, in that she does not consider herself transgender. If anything, she is non-binary, or gender fluid, which is extraordinary to read in a book like this.
As a Jewish transgender individual, it is always interesting for me to read about people like myself in books, even more so when it’s historical and written about cultures who aren’t commonly known to be supportive of the LGBTQ community. Reading about Aziza and her strength really touched me; seeing her mother and brother support her, watching her fall in love, and have her partner adore her for being entirely herself gave me hope. It’s important to remember that we have existed forever, in every culture, and at every time in history. The Dovekeepers offers a rare look into the life of people like me in times of struggle as well as times of peace. It shows a non-binary character express herself without putting her into a box. It reminds us that we can be anyone we want to be, and present in any way we want to present, and still be respected and loved along the way.
While some of the topics brought up in this book are confronting – there is a brief but graphic rape and sexual violence scene in the novel, as well as depiction of historical mass suicide towards the end – this is a book that I feel is essential reading for anyone who has ever felt unworthy of their place in the world. It is ultimately a book about hope, about love, about faith in higher powers and in yourself, and about the depth and power of women’s friendship. An empowering and truly eye-opening read.