Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. Graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston and New York.
Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of our most distinguished novelists. She has published a total of eighteen novels, two books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Her advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman (Women’s Cancer) Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Blackbird House is a book of stories centering around an old farm on Cape Cod. Hoffman’s recent books include Aquamarine and Indigo, novels for pre-teens, and The New York Times bestsellers The River King, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, and The Ice Queen. Green Angel, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale about loss and love, was published by Scholastic and The Foretelling, a book about an Amazon girl in the Bronze Age, was published by Little Brown. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly has chosen as one of the best books of the year. In January 2007, Skylight Confessions, a novel about one family’s secret history, was released on the 30th anniversary of the publication of Her first novel. Her most recent novel is The Story Sisters (2009), published by Shaye Areheart Books.
Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, Redbook, Architectural Digest, Gourmet, Self, and other magazines. Her teen novel Aquamarine was recently made into a film starring Emma Roberts.
From The Back Cover
Nearly two thousand years ago, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman’s novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.
The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.
Open up The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman and you’ll find 6 pages of short reviews, all proclaiming the brilliance and importance of this heavily researched portrayal of Rome’s bloody capture of Judea.
Judea was located approximately where the present day country of Israel is. In the east, the Jordan flows south into the Dead Sea. To the West lies the Mediterranean Sea. The territory usually ran from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, in the east-west direction, and from the southern tip of the Dead Sea and the Gaza Valley in the south to the Plain of the Esdraelon (Jezreel) in the north. These boundaries changed quite often, but they always remained in this general vicinity.
The book takes place after the Jews have returned from 40 years in the desert, reclaiming the city of Jerusalem as their own. In fact it opens with the Roman sacking of Jerusalem and the mass evacuation the Jews. Anyone who stayed was either put to death or taken as a slave.
The focus of the story is the lives of 4 women during these times—their exodus into the desert and their lives after arriving in King Herod’s City in the sky, an ancient, fortified city on Mount Masada and the last holdout of the Jews against the Romans.
All four of these women are assigned to buildings called dovecotes, structures intended to house pigeons or doves. Dovecotes may be square or circular free-standing structures or built into the end of a house or barn. They generally contain cubbies or pigeonholes for the birds to use as nests. Pigeons and doves were an important food source in those times and were kept for their eggs, flesh, and dung (as a fertilizer). These women care for (in this case doves) the birds, collect eggs, capture those to be eaten and not only collect the dung, but mix it with the earth in the city’s orchards.
The doves come to symbolize all manner of things, depending on the past and the characters of each of the women. To Yael, a woman who can be so silent and still that the doves she cares for will come to her the moment she spreads her arms, their constant singing becomes a part of her, drawing her unwilling into the work and into a sisterhood of amazing women. Why is Yael always so still in repose? Why does she prefer to be alone and not to speak? These things are a great part of the story and should not be given away.
Revvka is the wife of a Baker. During her exodus with her daughter and two grandchildren, they are set upon by other “travelers.” Her daughter is raped and killed in front of her and the children. The three escape, but Revka now carries a terrible secret. But such things do not matter when, in his grief, the boy’s father (one of the reasons they are at Masada) will not recognize them. No, it is the Dovekeepers who become their family; the Dovekeepers who hold the knowledge which might just return Revka’s grandchildren’s voices.
Aziza, brought up as a boy and trained in the art of warfare, is definitely out of place in the Dovecotes, but her destiny lies with them and the soldiers who protect their city and forage for food and medicines. What will happen to her and her secrets when the end finally comes?
And, finally, the Witch of Moab. Her secrets are the greatest of them all, her wisdom and knowledge just as strong as any of the priests of their mountain city and her compassion, though unspoken, runs through her life like a great river.
Which brings us to my thoughts about this historical gem. First of all, none of the women mentioned are simple. In fact, they are so complex that each is given about one quarter of the book. And as we learn about them, the true gift of The Dovekeepers becomes apparent: Alice Hoffman transports us back to a time that was. Not to a time that might have been, but a defining of a terrible place and time that was real, that was populated with a people of extreme devotion to God and to their ways and that Hoffman brings to a life as real as the one you and I live in today.
The language is seductive. Hoffman’s words are like songs drifting on the wind. She paints love, birth and death with the same bold sureness as all other aspects of the novel. We hurt and feel joy when the characters of her novel are hurt or find joy. Her metaphor of the Lion is just one of the storylines, but you won’t notice; you’ll be so drawn into the lives of the people of Masada you will not consciously assimilate Hoffman’s symbolism.
To be truthful and correct, I would have to say this wonderful achievement is so rich and so real that you’ll only be able to take it in small bites. The Dovekeepers is overwhelming, yet the reader will be drawn back as soon as he or she has caught their breath.
Haunting, wondrous, spellbinding, striking, unforgettable, brilliant—these are just a few of the words this novel has brought to the lips of critics everywhere. In fact, one critic claims this enthralling book is an important piece of modern literature: I couldn’t agree more. If you would like to know how it was to live in ancient Israel during the most horrible time in their history, go no further.
What an amazing piece of fiction!
Copyright © 2013 Clayton Clifford Bye