Author: Alice Hoffman
Year Published: 2011
Genre: historical drama
Set in 70 AD just after the fall of Jerusalem, The Dovekeepers retells the tragic story of Masada, a small Jewish stronghold on a mountain outside the Judean desert. Nine hundred Jews held out for several months against the Romans, but by the end of the siege, only two women and five children had survived. The tale is told from the perspective of four extraordinary women whose lives become inextricably intertwined when they become dovekeepers at Masada – Yael, the unwanted daughter of an assassin, Revka, a baker’s wife who has witnessed unspeakable brutality, Aziza, the daughter of a warrior, and Shirah, a wise and powerful woman who some suspect is a witch.
In Aziza’s section, Hoffman investigates the tensions between traditional gender binaries and what happens/doesn't happen when they are transgressed. Aziza has lived an unconventional life; although born female, to help her survive in the harsh desert as part of a mountain Moabite tribe, her mother brings her up as a boy. But before she arrives at Masada she reverts back to her female ‘identity.’ However, as the Romans begin their siege, Aziza once again transforms herself into a ‘man.’ Compared to her sister Nahara who joins the Essene people and lives “as if she was nothing more than a passive and beautiful ewe” (p. 284), Aziza is a force to be reckoned with.
I loved the sense of 'humanity' in this novel and the way it celebrated the feminine. By allowing some characters to move beyond gender boundaries and enact and play with both the masculine and the feminine, the agentic and the communal, Hoffman has created a story which transcends time boundaries.