The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

I originally picked up this novel because of its historical references to the content that I teach my 8th graders in World History I, and I was not disappointed by it. The Dovekeepers takes place in 70 C.E. after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. It tells the story of 900 Jews living in a stronghold of Masada, and their 4 year struggle to hold off the Romans. The story has some basis in history - the historian Josephus wrote an account of the Roman siege of Masada, in which he reported that two women and five children survived the massacre on the night when the Jews committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman Legion.

The Dovekeepers weaves together the story of four women and the journeys that brought them to the stronghold in Masada. Yael - the Assassin's Daughter -  is a fiery redhead whose mother died giving birth to her. Her father, a famed assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka - the Baker's Wife - comes to Masada with her two grandsons and son-in-law after witnessing the brutal murder of her daughter. Aziza - the Warrior - is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman, who finds passion with another soldier. Shirah - the Witch of Moab -  is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine.

Alice Hoffman does a wonderful job telling the individual stories of each of these women and then weaving them together. I enjoyed the fact that I recognized many of the places referenced in the story. However, even if you don't know anything about the historical events surrounding the story, you will still enjoy the book. The characters are strong women and there stories intersected in interesting ways. I enjoyed Alice Hoffman's writing style and will probably check out some of her other books.


In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson has been sitting on my "to read" shelf for quite awhile. As a history buff, the 1930s and 1940s have always been some of my favorite historical decades to study, and I have read widely in this area, both fiction and non-fiction. This book chronicles the lives of the Dodd family in Berlin, after William Dodd is chosen to be the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Dodd and his family arrive in Berlin just as Hitler is rising to power.

I loved how Erik Larson approached writing this book. If you are looking for a dry, boring recounting of historical events, then this is not the book for you. Larson's narrative is highly engaging and almost reads like a fiction novel would. Instead of the events being described by a removed narrator, they are presented through the perspectives of the "characters," so the reader gets the feeling of experiencing the events as they happen. This puts an interesting twist on the book, especially for anyone who has studied this era. You already knows what happens - hindsight is a beautiful thing - but for the people of that time period, Hitler's grand plan was not always so obvious. It was interesting to see how people reacted to Hitler, to see the signs that were missed or ignored, knowing already how the whole thing plays out.

The book is largely confined to the Dodd family, so some of the bigger players like Hitler play a smaller role, because Dodd's interactions with the dictator were limited. However, you do get to meet some of the leading Nazis of the time, as well as some of Germany's writers, journalists, and politicians who were alive at the time. It's through the stories of these people that one can really start to understand what it was like to live in Berlin during this period and the effects that Hitler's policies and ideas had on Germany. It is a fast read, and I was not disappointed.