Mrs. Noah’s Doves

Jane Yolen; Ali­da Mas­sari, illus.

  • Review
By – June 27, 2022

Read­ers have come to expect thought­ful and poet­ic new per­spec­tives on women in Jew­ish tra­di­tion from renowned author Jane Yolen. In Mrs. Noah’s Doves, Yolen explores the per­son­al moti­va­tions of Noah’s wife in the sto­ry of the flood, fill­ing the gaps in the bib­li­cal sto­ry with a cre­ative midrash on one woman’s strength and com­pas­sion. Ali­da Massari’s illus­tra­tions are stun­ning, recall­ing both folk art and paint­ings of the Euro­pean mas­ters. The result is an excep­tion­al work which invites young read­ers to iden­ti­fy with the unique mis­sion of both Noah and his wife to work with God in restor­ing life to a bro­ken earth.

In this pic­ture book, Mrs. Noah is more than just a help­mate; Yolen empha­sizes the part­ner­ship between the spous­es in achiev­ing their goal. Yolen’s poet­ic images and cadences ele­vate the text, based on her expec­ta­tion that chil­dren can appre­ci­ate sophis­ti­cat­ed lan­guage and ideas. Mrs. Noah’s deter­mi­na­tion is root­ed not only in her own per­son­al­i­ty, but in a chain of female nur­tur­ers. Her eclec­tic col­lec­tion of birds, “…ravens and robins, eagles and eiders, cock­a­toos and crows,” con­nect her emo­tion­al­ly to the doves her grand­moth­er pro­tect­ed. The peace­ful sym­bol­ism of the dove fly­ing from Noah’s ark gains a new dimen­sion as a vul­ner­a­ble crea­ture saved by a woman’s skills.

As in the Torah, there is ter­ror in this account of destruc­tion by water. Yolen choos­es to avoid the puni­tive aspects of the sto­ry, although they may be implic­it in the famil­iar sequence of events. Instead, the mas­sive flood is a real­i­ty which Noah and his wife con­front with pur­pose­ful actions. Noah is con­fi­dent that God is direct­ing them, and his love and respect for his wife rein­forces their plan. The giant ark — typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with male pow­er — is con­struct­ed here by both their sons and their daugh­ters. On a much larg­er scale, the ark reflects the same con­cern for life as Mrs. Noah’s del­i­cate bird cages. This con­sis­tent imagery of ded­i­ca­tion to peo­ple and the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment forms the back­bone of the nar­ra­tive, as mean­ing­ful as the rain­bow which God sends as a promise.

Massari’s pic­tures blend real­ism with dream-like imagery. Each pair of ani­mals on the ark is enclosed in a cage. There are more than only birds; giraffes’ necks stretch beyond the curv­ing black bars and cats have human-like eyes which gaze out with won­der. Tor­ren­tial rain pours into a green and blue sea as the wood­en ark strug­gles to stay afloat. The human char­ac­ters’ faces recall medieval por­traits, infused with spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Mrs. Noah rais­es her hands as if in prayer, releas­ing doves whose wingspans fea­ture blue and white mosa­ic pat­terns. Just as Yolen’s words enlarge the bound­aries of the well-known sto­ry, Massari’s pic­tures also depict the key fig­ures from a new per­spec­tive. Mrs. Noah is a stat­uesque old­er woman with long gray hair, who turns to her hus­band for sup­port. He appears anx­ious, but the fol­low­ing scene is one of busy activ­i­ty as con­struc­tion of the life-sav­ing project begins. These are real peo­ple rely­ing on close rela­tion­ships as they con­front a fright­en­ing reality.

Yolen and Massari’s new vision of Noah’s ark places a lov­ing and coura­geous woman at the cen­ter. Mrs. Noah’s min­i­mal role in the orig­i­nal ver­sion opens the door to a lyric explo­ration of who she real­ly was, filled with visu­al beauty.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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