Monday, August 27, 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman retells the legend of the siege at Masada, using the voices of four women who were among the 900 or so rebels and refugees making a final stand against the Romans when the rest of Judea had been conquered. All four women worked together in the dovecotes that provided eggs, meat (occasionally), and, most importantly, manure that enriched the gardens supplying fresh fruit and vegetables.

Yael, the assassin's daughter; Revka, the baker's wife; Aziza, the warrior's beloved; and Shirah, the witch of Moab -- in their society, women were defined chiefly through their relationship to men, but these four defied tradition, each in their own way. Getting to know these fierce and sorrowful characters was what I liked best about The Dovekeepers. I also enjoyed the glimpse into daily life in an inhospitable environment of 2000 years ago, and was equally intrigued by the descriptions of exotic folk traditions and arcane rituals.

Hoffman contrasts the attitudes towards women's folk wisdom and that of the men. Shirah is denounced as a witch for doing such things as dabbing hyssop nectar on her wrist to ward off evil. She "chanted Abra k'dabra." The men have better methods: "Abba presented my father with a fever charm, a prayer slipped inside a metal tube that was to be attached to the arms of the afflicted. He offered a length of blessed rope, to tie into knots in the children's tunics and bind them to good health." Abba was a leader of the Essene, followers of "a teacher from Galilee who taught that peace was the only hope for mankind."

Life was not peaceful for the folk gathered at the desert fortress of Masada, however. Their leaders were the brutal Sicarii -- warrior assassins. Aziza, having been raised as a boy in a different tribe, felt particularly constrained by the gender divide at Masada. She wanted to take up arms against the Romans too. Aziza's lover is Amram, Yael's brother. "He called me his sheep, his dove, his darling girl, but I was none of those things." Aziza realizes "He was not the one for me, for he would never accept the hidden part of me." In her old life, Aziza had the opposite problem, hiding her female nature. "I thought of my old friend Nouri, and how I had betrayed him, pretending to be something I wasn't, a creature cast from sinew and muscle rather than a woman of flesh and blood." This last sentence bothers my sensibilities, since I don't view men as 'creatures' and they are just as much made of flesh and blood as women. But I guess it is Aziza's way of explaining the mask she used when living as a boy. At Masada, Aziza found a way to slip back into an approximation of her true self by impersonating her younger brother.

If you are already familiar with the ending of the legend of the siege at Masada, you'll be glad to know that Hoffman has found a way to end The Dovekeepers with hope.

Readalikes: The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley); Theodora (Stella Duffy) and The Red Tent (Anita Diamant).

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