Publishing Info: Picador, 1997
Number of Pages: 321
Book Category: Fiction
My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.
This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father, Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother. On those rare occasions when I was remembered, it was as a victim. Near the beginning of your holy book, there is a passage that seems to say I was raped and continues with the bloody tale of how my honor was avenged.
It’s a wonder that any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again. But some did. Maybe you guessed that there was more to me than the voiceless cipher in the text. Maybe you heard it in the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows. Dee-nah.
So begins the The Red Tent – the fictionalized story of Dinah (whose only mention in the Bible is in Genesis 34). Anita Diamant imagines an entire life for Dinah — from her birth as the only daughter of Jacob to her life as a woman in the ancient world of the Old Testament.
From her childhood among her four “mothers” — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah (each were married to Jacob and doted on Dinah as the only girl born among the four women) to the private world of the red tent (where menstruating women gather during “that” time), Dinah’s story provides an insider’s view of what it was like to be a woman in biblical times — including the hazards and politics of sharing a husband. Eventually, the family leaves the land where Dinah was born and to travels to Canaan so that Jacob can reconcile with his brother Esau. It is here where the story of Dinah in the Bible takes place. Her “rape” triggers the slaughter of an entire town by some of her brothers — leading to the family’s disbanding. Although she doesn’t appear again in the Bible, Diamant’s story has her fleeing her family and moving to Egypt, where she lives out her life as a midwife — eventually finding happiness and peace with her family’s history.
I read this book as part of my Summer Vacation Reading Challenge. I chose it because I’ve had this book for years and never read it (thought it would be boring but had gotten it based on my mother’s repeated recommendations). Plus I thought it would be interesting to travel to another time and place. I’m so glad I finally broke down and read it because this book was anything but boring. In fact, it was downright fascinating. I love that Diamant had the courage to take a minor figure in the Bible and imagine an entire life for her. At the end of my book, there is a short reading guide in which Diamant talks about some of the choices she made for the book. I think it is worth quoting:
Aiding her [Diamant's] work was “midrash,” the ancient and still vital literary form, which means “search” or “investigation.”
“Historically, the rabbis used this highly imaginative form of storytelling to make sense of the elliptical nature of the Bible — to explain, for example, why Cain killed Abel. The compressed stories and images in the Bible are rather like photographs. They don’t tell us everything we want or need to know. Midrash is the story about what happened before and after the photographic flash.”
She points out that “The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction, its perspective and focus — by and about the female characters — distinguishes it from the biblical account in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical description, my books is a radical departure from the historical text.”
I think Diamant did a brilliant job of imagining an entire life for Dinah while still working in the biblical story that many are familiar with. (Sadly, it has been years since I’ve read the Bible and I mostly remembered the story of her brother Joseph from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. My old CCD teachers must be proud!!!) Actually, I was surprised how many names and stories did jog my memory. If nothing else, I wanted to read Genesis over again to fill in the gaps of my knowledge (and I plan on doing so).
The book has a definite feminist slant to it. In Diamant’s story, the women are kept on the sidelines but manage to exert their will by well-placed whispers, hints and using their feminine wiles. But make no mistake, this was a man’s world and a woman had to be smart and strong to survive. The red tent is where the woman’s society hums and buzzes — where they celebrate being a woman, make plans and build community. In a time when many women shared a husband, it was critical to work out these relationships. And in a time when childbirth could be incredibly dangerous, women might need to rely on their “sisters” to raise their children or save their lives.
Diamant chose to make Dinah a midwife, which I think was a fruitful (pun intended!) choice. Imagine living in the ancient world and facing childbirth without a sterile hospital, trained physician or medicine? The stories of the various births throughout the book were both horrifying and fascinating. Dinah and her fellow midwives use a variety of herbs, massages, songs and common-sense techniques to get women through births of all kinds. It made me wonder if any of these techniques are still in use today.
Another thing I liked about this book was the whole “red tent” business. For Dinah and her fellow women, this was a time of togetherness, rest and celebration — not a solitary almost shameful thing like it is today. I thought that was kind of nice. However, the actual concept of having that “time of the month” on a bed of straw for three days is rather unappealing when viewed through my modern eyes. In fact, it started me thinking about how bad I would have it if I lived “back then.” (In fact, I probably wouldn’t have survived anyway because I was a “breech” baby and that kind of birth was usually fatal to both child and mother.) But suppose I had lived. With my bad eyes, I would have barely been able to see anything clearly. And no air conditioning and living in the desert? And having to grow my own food and make my own clothes? And being a bit of property to either my husband or father to be married off or even sold if needed? Nothing like a little view of how our sisters in the past had it to make you appreciate the conveniences of modern life a little more!
In short, The Red Tent is a thought-provoking read that brings to life an entire “hidden” world of the women of the Bible. Diamant has a poetic writing style that suits the material well, and there is a sense of mysticism throughout the book that lends it an almost fanciful, mystical feel at times. Yet the book is firmly rooted in the real world as well — the hot, dusty world of women who lived in an ancient time and who didn’t really have a voice of their own. How lovely of Anita Diamant to come along and give a voice to Dinah — to help us modern beings learn and think more about those who came before us and the struggles and hardships they faced — as well as their joys and triumphs.
My Final Recommendation
I would highly recommend this book as it is thought-provoking, well-written and offers a fully imagined glimpse into what it might have been like to be a woman in Biblical times. Don’t make the mistake I did at first and think the subject matter might be dry, boring and staid. I think you’d be surprised at how bawdy (yes, bawdy!), earthy and graphic the lives of these ancient women are. But if the topic of menstruation and other womanly things gives you pause, this might not be the best book for you. Also, if the idea of an author reimagining Biblical stories gets your blood pressure up, this might not be a good choice for you either.
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