Readers have come to expect thoughtful and poetic new perspectives on women in Jewish tradition from renowned author Jane Yolen. In Mrs. Noah’s Doves, Yolen explores the personal motivations of Noah’s wife in the story of the flood, filling the gaps in the biblical story with a creative midrash on one woman’s strength and compassion. Alida Massari’s illustrations are stunning, recalling both folk art and paintings of the European masters. The result is an exceptional work which invites young readers to identify with the unique mission of both Noah and his wife to work with God in restoring life to a broken earth.
In this picture book, Mrs. Noah is more than just a helpmate; Yolen emphasizes the partnership between the spouses in achieving their goal. Yolen’s poetic images and cadences elevate the text, based on her expectation that children can appreciate sophisticated language and ideas. Mrs. Noah’s determination is rooted not only in her own personality, but in a chain of female nurturers. Her eclectic collection of birds, “…ravens and robins, eagles and eiders, cockatoos and crows,” connect her emotionally to the doves her grandmother protected. The peaceful symbolism of the dove flying from Noah’s ark gains a new dimension as a vulnerable creature saved by a woman’s skills.
As in the Torah, there is terror in this account of destruction by water. Yolen chooses to avoid the punitive aspects of the story, although they may be implicit in the familiar sequence of events. Instead, the massive flood is a reality which Noah and his wife confront with purposeful actions. Noah is confident that God is directing them, and his love and respect for his wife reinforces their plan. The giant ark — typically associated with male power — is constructed here by both their sons and their daughters. On a much larger scale, the ark reflects the same concern for life as Mrs. Noah’s delicate bird cages. This consistent imagery of dedication to people and the natural environment forms the backbone of the narrative, as meaningful as the rainbow which God sends as a promise.
Massari’s pictures blend realism with dream-like imagery. Each pair of animals on the ark is enclosed in a cage. There are more than only birds; giraffes’ necks stretch beyond the curving black bars and cats have human-like eyes which gaze out with wonder. Torrential rain pours into a green and blue sea as the wooden ark struggles to stay afloat. The human characters’ faces recall medieval portraits, infused with spirituality. Mrs. Noah raises her hands as if in prayer, releasing doves whose wingspans feature blue and white mosaic patterns. Just as Yolen’s words enlarge the boundaries of the well-known story, Massari’s pictures also depict the key figures from a new perspective. Mrs. Noah is a statuesque older woman with long gray hair, who turns to her husband for support. He appears anxious, but the following scene is one of busy activity as construction of the life-saving project begins. These are real people relying on close relationships as they confront a frightening reality.
Yolen and Massari’s new vision of Noah’s ark places a loving and courageous woman at the center. Mrs. Noah’s minimal role in the original version opens the door to a lyric exploration of who she really was, filled with visual beauty.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.