The Dove­keep­ers

By – October 31, 2011

It’s not easy to make char­ac­ters liv­ing in 70 C.E., fight­ing the Romans on Masa­da, breathe on the page, but Alice Hoffman’s mas­ter­piece suc­ceeds. Two women and five chil­dren sur­vived the mas­sacre, accord­ing to first-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Jose­phus. Hoff­man builds upon his ancient account, using it as a start­ing point to tell the sto­ries of four women whose diver­gent paths brought them to Masada.

Chron­i­cling the four years dur­ing and after the fall of Jerusalem, the nov­el opens with the trag­ic sto­ry of Yael, a red­head neglect­ed and abused by her father, who nev­er for­gave her for her mother’s death in child­birth. Rev­ka, a sharp-tongued grand­moth­er, is qui­et­ly reel­ing from the bru­tal mur­der of her daugh­ter as she cares for her grand­sons. Shi­rah is an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly beau­ti­ful mys­tic, feared and revered for her heal­ing pow­ers. Her daugh­ter, Aziza, was fathered by a war­rior and raised as a boy, enabling her superla­tive skills as a rid­er and marks­man. Togeth­er, they strug­gle to leave the past behind and forge a new society.

Hoff­man is painstak­ing­ly thor­ough, craft­ing detailed accounts of each woman’s life and infus­ing them with a time­less sen­si­bil­i­ty that res­onates with a mod­ern audience.

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?

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 set­ting free the Romans’ lion, to Shirah’s child­hood vision of a fish in the Nile, and, of course, 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. Why do you think Alice Hoff­man invent­ed the fig­ure of Wynn, The Man from the North,” who comes to serve the women in the dove­cote? 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 witch­craft? 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 Dove­keep­er­sand 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? In the way Hoff­man depicts Chan­na, how is she dif­fer­ent than the oth­er major female char­ac­ters in the book?

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?

9. Why is the Roman legion prepar­ing to attack the Jews at Masa­da? From clues in the book, as well as your own knowl­edge of his­to­ry, explain the roots of the conflict.

10. Revka’s son-in-law, the war­rior known as The Man from the Val­ley, asks Shi­rah, 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 Shi­rah unpre­pared for this experience?

11. On page 458, Shi­rah, nar­rat­ing, says, We stood and watched as God aban­doned us.” What do you think about this com­ment? How do the res­i­dents of Masa­da rec­ti­fy their Jew­ish beliefs with their cer­tain deaths in the siege?

12. 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?

13. From the work of the assas­sins to the treat­ment of slaves, and from sui­cide to the killing of chil­dren dur­ing bat­tle, The Dove­keep­ers engages many dif­fi­cult moral ques­tions. What moral ques­tions did you find in the nov­el, how did you rec­on­cile them with our con­tem­po­rary laws and morality?

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

15. In the acknowl­edg­ments to the nov­el, Hoff­man explains that the his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion of her sto­ry comes from Jose­phus, the first-cen­tur y his­to­ri­an, who has writ­ten the only account of the mas­sacre. How does know­ing that many details of the nov­el have a basis in his­to­ryaf­fect your read­ing of the book?