59 pages 1 hour read

Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepers

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


The Dovekeepers (2011) is a historical fiction novel by Alice Hoffman, set in ancient Israel in 70-73 CE. Infused with magical realism, the book is a dramatized feminist retelling of the Siege of Masada, an event in which 960 Jews resisted the onslaught of Roman forces for nine months. The siege took place in the rugged mountain fortress of Masada and left only seven survivors: two women and five children. In Hoffman’s telling, the narrative unfolds from the point of view of four women—Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah—each with her own history of tragedy and resilience.

The Dovekeepers was a New York Times bestseller. A television miniseries based on the novel was released in 2015. Hoffman is the prolific author of many works for adult and young adult readers, including Practical Magic (1995) and The Invisible Hour (2023). As in The Dovekeepers, Hoffman often includes magic realism in her works.

This study guide uses the Simon & Schuster UK, 2012 Paperback edition.

Content Warning: The novel contains descriptions of graphic violence, sexual violence, enslavement, and abuse.

Plot Summary

In the summer of 70 CE, Roman soldiers sack the second Temple of Jerusalem in the First Jewish-Roman War. As Jerusalem burns, Yael, a young woman in her late teens, and her father Yosef flee the city with the family of Ben Simon, hoping to make their way to the safe fortress of Masada, where Yael’s older brother Amram is sheltering with a band of Jewish rebels. Amram and Yosef are Sicarii, assassins who target Romans and their Jewish supporters. Yosef has neglected red-haired Yael all her life because his beloved wife died giving birth to her. As the group crosses a bitter desert to reach Masada, Yael and Ben Simon begin an illicit love affair. Ben Simon and his family die of disease, and Yael is pregnant by the time she reaches the ancient fortress.

At Masada, Yael is sent to work in the dovecotes, where women harvest dove droppings to fertilize the soil. Here, Yael meets the beautiful Shirah, her daughters Aziza and Nahara, and the older woman Revka, each with a tragic story of her own. Revka fled Cypress with her daughter’s family after her husband, a kind baker, was murdered by marauding Romans. On their way to Masada, her daughter was raped and killed by Roman deserters. Revka’s little grandsons witnessed the horror and have not spoken a word since. Revka brought her grieving son-in-law Yoav to Masada. Sorrow has turned Yoav, once a man of peace, into a ruthless warrior.

Shirah is of Jewish origin but grew up in Egypt, brought up to serve priests. Shirah’s mother taught her women’s magic and several languages. When the practice of serving priests became outlawed, Shirah’s mother sent her to Jerusalem with kinsfolk for safekeeping. However, when Shirah had a baby, Aziza, with her cousin Eleazar ben Ya’ir, she was labeled a demon and cast out of Jerusalem to die. Shirah was rescued by a man from Moab, and with him she had two more children, Nahara and Adir. Shirah left her second husband to join Ben Ya’ir, her first love and the leader of the rebels at Masada. Aziza, who was raised as a boy during her childhood by Shirah, longs to prove her valor in battle and secretly joins the rebel ranks dressed in male clothes.

The four women grow closer in the dovecotes, supporting each other through many ups and downs, including the birth of Aziza’s son, Arieh, and the decision of Shirah‘s second daughter, Nahara, to leave her mother and join a sect of mystics. Shirah teaches Yael how to write in Greek and Egyptian, as well as spells her own mother taught her. Meanwhile, Roman soldiers are drawing ever closer to Masada, one of the very last freeholds of the Jewish people in Judea. Masada, carved into a towering cliff, is supposed to be impenetrable, but when an army of 6,000 Romans and thousands of their captives camp at the valley under the cliffs, matters begin to look grim. The Romans build a wall around Masada, locking the occupants inside. Supplies start running out in the fortress. Although Jewish Zealot warriors send parties to fight the Romans, the Romans keep adding numbers to their forces. Meanwhile, Shirah gives birth to another daughter with Ben Ya’ir and names her Yonah.

After nine months, the Romans build a ramp on top of their wall to access the fortress. They blast Masada‘s walls with boulders and fire. Ben Ya’ir gathers all the inhabitants of Masada and tells them that victory is now impossible. However, they will still resist the Romans by dying by suicide so that the soldiers find no one alive to rape, kill, and enslave. Ten executioners are assigned to kill all the families in Masada. Amram kills Aziza, once his beloved, and Yoav kills Amram in anger. Shirah asks Yael to save the children and hands her a book of spells she inherited from her mother. Ben Ya’ir kills Shirah and himself.

However, Revka and Yael are determined to survive, along with Revka‘s grandsons, Levi and Noah, Yael‘s son Arieh, Shirah‘s daughter Yonah, and a boy called Yehuda. The women and children hide in a cistern to escape the Jewish executioners. They are discovered by Roman soldiers. The soldiers take the group—the only people they found alive in Masada—to the Roman general Silva. Yael asks Silva to spare their lives in exchange for the story of Masada‘s last stand and mass suicide, to which the women and children are the only witnesses. Silva accepts her bargain and takes the group to Jerusalem, where their stories are recorded for posterity by Roman scribes.

The women and children are then set free. Yael buys the group‘s passage to Shirah‘s Alexandria by selling a golden amulet Shirah gave her. At the end of the novel, the children are mostly grown up and the two women are still alive, guarding the legacy of the people who died at Masada.

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