The Dovekeepers

Scribner  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 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? 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 history
affect your reading of the book?

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