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Book Discussion at Epiphany: "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman

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Continuing with a theme of reading historical fiction the book group read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. This novel is a sprawling tale based on another event in history. It was our largest book to date at 500 pages but almost every member managed to finish it in time for our meeting. Perhaps this is a testament to Hoffman's storytelling.

The Dovekeepers takes place during the early 70s AD in ancient Judea. At this time Rome was coming into its full power and aimed to squash a Judean rebellion. Several hundred Jews fled Jerusalem and went to hide out in the desert. There were several strongholds but the one focused on in this story was at Masada, a former mountain fortress of King Herod's. Here we meet four women and each section of the book is from that woman's point of view. Each of the women finds themselves at Masada for different reasons and we get to see their lives before and after their arrivals. The title refers to the job the women had taking care of doves which had many uses in the survival of the town which included using their excrement for fertilizer. The story of Masada is well known because the rebels who lived there managed to hold off Rome for several years. When the Romans were finally able to capture the location, the Jewish settlers killed themselves rather than surrender to them. Only two women and five children survived.

Alice Hoffman is known for her use of magic in many of her stories and that was no different here. One of the women is known as a witch for her ability to commune with nature and knowledge of herbs and spells. This plays out in a multitude of ways and Hoffman shows how easily a woman at that time could go from being revered to reviled depending on the whims of the men around her. The use of "witchcraft" fit into what someone mentioned about Hoffman's style which was that it had a bit of magical realism to it. This is a term used to refer to literature in which magical elements are woven into a realistic setting. There were many times in the story where you felt like some of the events taking place were fantastical yet they still managed to seem believable in the realm of the story. This could also be because some of the events had very biblical leanings and when used in conjunction with a story about a religious group of people, it all makes sense.

The general consensus among members of the group was that the novel had a very interesting premise but could have used some editing. One member even pointed out that there were phrases Hoffman used on more than one occasion that caused the story at certain points to feel repetitive. The other critique was that even though there were four characters, their voices didn't feel distinct enough to distinguish all of them. Once again the feeling was that had the sections been a bit more concise this would have been less of an issue. During the discussion a term was used to refer to the story which was midrash. This is usually used to describe commentary on Hebrew scripture in which there is some conjecture on the parts that are missing. In this case Hoffman used what little knowledge she had on the survivors at Masada and the events taking place during that time to fill in the gaps of the story, many felt what she came up with was well done. The book while melancholy was never dull and provided some valuable insight into the past. It even brought up an intriguing question posed to the group by a member, how could the Jewish people continue to believe in God when their world was literally falling apart around them? The answer from most was that faith allows one to believe that all events happen for a divine reason but really it is a personal choice one makes whether or not you allow the events of your life to determine what you believe. Any book that can make one ponder such questions is certainly worth anyone's time.

If you have already enjoyed the above novel or are looking for something similar, here are some suggestions:

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