Thursday, November 3, 2011

Masada did not need the Alice Hoffman treatment

The Dovekeepers
by Alice Hoffman

Let me start by saying that Alice Hoffman is a tremendously gifted writer. I love the magic and magical realism of her stories, and I think she has a good sense of people and emotions. At what she does, there are none better.

Still, when I grabbed a galley of The Dovekeepers at BEA, it definitely seemed like a departure from her typical work. In fact, the jacket copy made it seem as though The Dovekeepers was a passion project, “over five years in the writing.” I have no doubt that Ms. Hoffman’s heart was in the right place, but this reader is left with the thought that Masada didn’t need the Alice Hoffman treatment.

Set in 70 C.E., this is the story of the Roman siege of the Jewish settlement at Masada, a mountain stronghold. Ms. Hoffman has humanized the historic events by telling the story in four parts through the first-person narration of four very different women. I went into this novel with the highest of expectations, but my ultimate response was quite negative.

I had several issues with the book, but probably the biggest was this—the tragedy at Masada is one of the most dramatic tales in all of history. There was no need to add witchcraft and fantastic elements. It's clear that Ms. Hoffman did a ton of research, and I don't expect that ancient Jews were just like contemporary ones, but I didn't even recognize the people she was writing about as Jews. They were like some kind of weird, superstitious pagans. And this is coming from a woman with absolutely no religious faith—but apparently I have strong feelings of connection to my Jewish history. And I felt she took tremendous liberties with a story that shouldn't have been altered out of respect. I was kind of offended.

For instance, the Jewish faith doesn't tend to dwell on any kind of afterlife. It's a vague concept at best. We focus on this life. However, Hoffman uses the phrase "world-to-come" 44 times in this novel! These people are obsessed with the afterlife. And there are plentiful references to ghosts, demons, magic, spells, witches, etc. I realize there is mysticism in Judaism—real Kabbalah, not the nonsense practiced by Christian celebrities—but it's a tiny part of the religion. And yet it seems to be all Alice Hoffman is able to write about.

Obviously, a lot of the issues above have more to do with me and my Jewish identity than the quality of the novel, strictly speaking. Beyond all that, the novel still has some problems. As noted above, the story is told through the voices and experiences of four different female narrators. I found the first narrator to be unlikable and unsympathetic in the extreme. I understand that redemption was a major theme of the novel, but it made getting into the story challenging. In general, I had a lot of trouble connecting to these women.

Finally, OMG, I can't believe how badly the endless exposition was handled! Truly dreadful. I could give you any number of examples, but here are a few:

"The settlement had been destroyed by the Romans. It was intended to be a paradise built by the Yahad, a group of believers from the Essene sect, Jews who practiced strict codes with fixed hours of prayer. It was said that our people had been cut into four quarters, each with their own philosophy, and then cut up four more times for good measure. Truly righteous, the Essenes has indeed cut themselves off from all others."

"My father came up to me and asked if it was my desire to be a zonah. I felt that he had slapped me. He compared me to the prostitutes who lived at the edge of Jerusalem and were willing to pull off their cloaks for anyone who would pay them, even Roman soldiers."

"Shirah was a practitioner of keshaphim, initiated into the secrets of magic. Our people believed that any item with a sun and a moon upon it must be taken to the Salt Sea and thrown into the water, but several women claimed to have seen such figures worn at the witch's throat."
I don’t know that any other reader would respond to this novel the way that I have. (In fact, I welcome comments from other readers about the points I raised.) I see that, in general, The Dovekeepers has gotten extremely positive reviews. I’d much rather praise than criticize, but I just can’t join the majority on this one. I will look forward to Ms. Hoffman’s next effort. I am confident that it will be more to my liking.


4 comments:

  1. I have not finished the book yet, 3/5 through it. I too am surprised by the amount of magic and afterlife in the book. But, it is fiction. And, I probably would not have been interested in finding out more about Masada without reading this book. The History Channel has an episode about Masada based on archaeological research that contradicts much that is traditionally believed about Masada. I am sorry you are offended. I am Catholic and am often offended about the way we are portrayed in the past and present.

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  2. I just finished this book and have declared it my "favorite novel" which is pretty huge considering I'm a librarian and have been reading since I was 4 years old. Aside from that, I have to say that Hoffman did exactly with this novel what she's done with all the rest of her pieces - she honed her unique writing style to perfection in my opinion. If you've read anything else by Hoffman, the liberties she took with this story should not surprise or offend you but rather leave you feeling as though you have witnessed Hoffman's best work to date.

    The religious aspect was beautiful and, I felt, on point with the little I know of Judaism from my time teaching the children at, and running, the local Jewish preschool in my area.

    Also, I related deeply with all 4 women portrayed in The Dovekeepers in spite of their differences from one another any myself. They were raw, full of emotion and empathy, and fiercely independent despite the context of their times.

    Lastly, I found Hoffman's tribute to this tragic event worthy of much praise for she managed to weave countless historical details into a magical and engaging story that allows her readers to feel as if they might know what it was like to be a woman at Masada.

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  3. I just finished this book and have declared it my "favorite novel" which is pretty huge considering I'm a librarian and have been reading since I was 4 years old. Aside from that, I have to say that Hoffman did exactly with this novel what she's done with all the rest of her pieces - she honed her unique writing style to perfection in my opinion. If you've read anything else by Hoffman, the liberties she took with this story should not surprise or offend you but rather leave you feeling as though you have witnessed Hoffman's best work to date.

    The religious aspect was beautiful and, I felt, on point with the little I know of Judaism from my time teaching the children at, and running, the local Jewish preschool in my area.

    Also, I related deeply with all 4 women portrayed in The Dovekeepers in spite of their differences from one another any myself. They were raw, full of emotion and empathy, and fiercely independent despite the context of their times.

    Lastly, I found Hoffman's tribute to this tragic event worthy of much praise for she managed to weave countless historical details into a magical and engaging story that allows her readers to feel as if they might know what it was like to be a woman at Masada.

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  4. I thought I had read the book, but upon reflection all I read was about the novel. Interesting that I found your blog by searching for the word, "keshaphim" as I was unfamiliar with it and nearly always look up words, among other factors, when I am stumped.

    I do think mysticism was more prevalent in the Jewish faith 2000 years than is recognized today, but perhaps moreso among the most religious. It is also likely we'd experience it even today among the Hasidim.

    As for an after-life, I have no knowledge that it is part of Jewish thought or belief system, but I am not as much of a scholar as I would wish.

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