Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant — 336 pgs

Dinah. Her story in the Bible is brief and violent and she fades quickly into obscurity. But Anita Diamant has a different version of the events of Dinah's life. Daughter of Jacob and Leah, Dinah lives with her four mothers, all wives of Jacob, and her many brothers and sisters, on a harsh land. As the only girl of the extensive brood, Dinah learns from her mothers the ways of women, from the art of midwifery to the sacred days of the Red Tent, where the women of the camp gather to share their monthly experiences of womanhood. As Dinah grows from girl to woman, she learns lessons of love and family from all who surround her, and struggles to accept her singular place among the tribe of Jacob, eventually leaving her family for a marriage to a wealthy prince of the realm. But Dinah's fate is not so easily sealed, and when her brothers come to exact revenge upon the man who they feel stole their sister's maidenhood, Dinah must begin life again on a foreign shore as a servant midwife. In this lush and vibrant story, Diamant presents the mystical story of Dinah and weaves the famous tale of the family of Jacob within the confines of her tale. The story is luminous and unique, filled with the passion and pathos of ancient times, when women celebrated the power and vitality locked inside their hearts and bodies.

My first experience reading this book was about ten years ago. When I read it back then, I found that it was quite unlike anything I had ever read before, and I quickly housed it among my "keeper" books. This time around, I read it in conjunction with my book club, and this second reading afforded me more insight into the characters’ perspectives and also into the Biblical significance of the story that Diamant so expertly tells. I know now that this is a story that I’m destined to read again, hopefully with an eye to more fully capturing the hidden wisdom that’s hiding within the story.

Diamant opens with the story of Dinah's childhood, as she explains the genealogy of Jacob’s family and tells how each of her four mothers have come to be wed to the man who is at the head of her tribe. Most of these stories are unconventional and each woman has a different motive for wanting Jacob at her side. The crux of each of these stories are straight from the Bible, but Diamant has a way of making even these well-known facts fresh and new. Part of me believes that she took this approach in an effort to keep from alienating readers who may not adhere to Christianity or who haven’t had the experience of reading the Bible. This was a brilliant approach, and because of her efforts not to classify this tale as one of a particular Christian leaning or origin, Diamant has made the book accessible to all. I found the story of Dinah's childhood to be the most interesting sections of the book. She doesn't shy away from describing the tensions between the women, or the problems that such a large brood would be susceptible to. Jacob is portrayed as a flawed male lead: loving, yet somehow unrefined and unaware of the emotional issues that go along with having a brood of wives and children. He is noble and long-suffering, yet also careless, and at times stubborn.

The women of the camp were more interesting to me. By nature of their gender and the times they lived in they should have lived marginalized lives in the shadows of their men, but somehow this wasn't so. They were passionate, opinionated and headstrong. They shared all they had with their sister-wives despite the animosity and jealousies that they felt for one another. Because Dinah was the only girl in the huge brood, she was afforded all the love and knowledge that her mothers had to give, and was the treasure of the camp. These were powerful and noble women who were aware of the unique power of being women. Strong women who suffered, yes, but also who know the hidden might and potency that lived within them. Though it was ostensibly Jacob who ruled the camp, it was easy to see that the women were the ones who were in control, and it was their whims and desires that drove their family further and spurred them on.

The sections describing the women's monthly red tent ritual were full of beauty. There the women were free to worship their gods and free to marvel at the changes that were taking place in their bodies. The tent was a place of power, where births and cycles were given the gravity that they deserved, and where they could all commune safely to experience the power of birth and life. They speak of the wondrous things that their bodies are responsible for, the power that has been invested in them and their sisters like them, and the beauty of all things female. It’s here that Dinah learns the secrets of the camp and of the jealousies of her mothers, which must be left outside the tent flaps. Dinah also becomes privy to the secrets of midwifery and discovers that this is where her talents lie. The red tent embodies the spirit of the women and becomes a place for refuge, respite and celebration, and it sends a powerful message to the women of the world that their lives and differences should be rejoiced and shared with one another. It's a starkly feminist message that many women today have forgotten, and Diamant expresses it with clarity and feeling.

Later sections of the book deal with the fall of the house of Jacob and the scattering of Dinah's tribe. The problems that destroyed them were mainly the fault of the men of the tribe, and in their errors of propriety and judgement, all the women, especially Dinah, met their destruction. I found it sad that the men who had lived with these remarkable women had not profited one iota from the lessons and wisdom that they imparted, and that the whims of Jacob’s sons were so destructive and left to fester out of control. Dinah loses all she has known and must start over, with the painful loss of her network of mothers left behind in the red dust of defeat. She never really gets away from the memories and wisdom of her mothers no matter how far she travels, and in some ways she grows to be much like them, remaking herself piecemeal by taking parts of each into the mosaic of her soul. Though I did enjoy these sections of the book, I found that they couldn't really compare to the earlier scenes of life at the camp with Dinah surrounded by her loving and supporting mothers: women who were strong enough to change the course of their fates and the fates of those around them.

I really think this book is destined to become a classic, and in some circles, it already is. Those readers who are usually shy about picking up a Biblical fiction book would do well to give this one a chance. It really does speak to a lot of the particular issues that women face, both together and alone, and Diamant doesn't get stuck attempting to preach or moralize to her audience. I know that this story already has a huge following, and it's interesting that so many readers find pleasure in the book, both for the first time and after repeated readings. I know that this is a book that makes an appearance on my top books of all time list, and would highly recommend it to readers who span all ages and beliefs.

26 comments:

Amy said...

I loved this book a lot when I read it, maybe I should read it again someday!

When I read it, I remembered how it like...opened up to me just how much the Biblical narrative leaves out. I had just never thought about it before.

Buried In Print said...

I absolutely love comparing experiences of reading the same book, especially when time, as much as ten years, has passed, but it's interesting that you enjoyed this one every bit as much, maybe even more? It's one that I've thought about reading many times, but now I'm thinking that I should just buy a copy and make it a sure thing: thanks for the nudge!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This book certainly has its fans, but it's not the kind of thing that interests me. But I'm glad it gives you so much enjoyment!

Harvee Lau said...

Strong women stories are always interesting. And the time and setting for this one is fascinating.

bermudaonion said...

I don't think I've read anything but praise for this book. It's really outside of my comfort zone, though, so I'll have to think about it.

Suko said...

Wonderfully written review! I also read this many years ago (8 or 9 years ago, I think), and would probably find it even better now as well.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I have heard SO MUCH about this book. It really doesn't interest me at all, but I have a feeling it would kind of be like The Dovekeepers maybe. Strong women, historical foundations. I guess I won't rule it out.

Trisha said...

If I don't read this soon, I may have a breakdown. It's been waiting for far too long and you definitely have me anxious to pick it up.

Melissa said...

I think I need to reread this one too. I loved it the first time around and wonder what I would think of it now.

Jenners said...

I resisted reading this book FOREVER (my mom kept urging it on me) because it was "Biblical fiction" but when I finally gave in, I found it fascinating. The lives of these women was so difficult.

Steph said...

What a fantastic review! I remember devouring this book about 10 years ago during a summer holiday. Don't know why I picked it up as biblical fiction isn't really my thing, but once I started reading, I could not put it down. I think I read it too fast to really take the time to reflect on the deeper issues, but it sounds like you and your book club found tons to discuss!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This was a terrific book. I read it when it first came out.

JoAnn said...

Excellent review! I LOVED this book and have kept it on my 'keeper' shelf for the past ten years, too. High time for a reread...

Brooke said...

Everyone and their grandma has read this book and recommended it to me! My book club keeps pressuring me to give this one a shot, but like you mentioned, the Biblical aspect throws me a bit as I'm far from religious. I will definitely get around to it eventually - especially knowing how strong the feminine aspect is.

Athira said...

I've had this book recommended so many times, but I haven't been too sure yet. Your review has convinced me that I need to pick this soon and that it is easily accessible to all. Great review!

Marg said...

This is the book that started me on my book blogging journey! I listened to it (the audiobook/narrator) are awesome, and I just had to talk to somebody, anybody, but there really wasn't anyone so I started my blog.

Beth F said...

I remember liking this when I read it. I think it'd be an awesome book club book. I read something else by her but didn't like it as well.

Audra said...

I remember loving this book when I read it -- maybe ten years ago -- and I'm curious to see if it would hold up on reread. I am soooo not religious but enjoyed having this Biblical story made 'real', in a way. Lovely review -- I hadn't thought of this book in forever!

Marie said...

wow, that's quite a recommendation. I know this book is hugely popular- I get requests all the time for readalikes to it- and I appreciate your telling us more about it!

Man of la Book said...

Great review. I remember this book and always wanted to read it because I find biblical fiction facinating.

Lisa said...

What a great review! I didn't care as much for this one - I liked it a lot but I went into it with such high expectations. Glad you liked it so much!

Ti said...

My club read this when it first came out and although I felt as if it was a perfect book for a book club (plenty to discuss), it made me uncomfortable. I am okay talking about women stuff but there were people sitting at the table who still felt women should be kept separate during their menses. I was floored over that and most of them were women.

softdrink said...

I agree about it having classic potential. I read this years ago, and it really made me see what historical fiction could do, in the sense of transporting me to a place and time and really giving me a feel for it. Also, I am not at all religious and yet still loved it.

Aarti said...

I love your comments about how accessible this book are. I read it and was worried about the Biblical aspects of it, something I'm sure doesn't surprise you, but I think what I came away with was just what Amy said - that there's so much to history and religion that is left out and much of that is probably related to women. I really enjoyed learning about the tight-knit relationships between women.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Like you, I read this book years ago, but it always stayed with me. I think it's time to pick it up and again. Awesome review!
2 Kids and Tired Books

Carole said...

Hi there, there is a collection of book links happening right now at Carole's Chatter. This time we are collecting links to posts about your favourite historical fiction. Here is the link Your Favourite Historical Fiction Please do pop by and link in – maybe this nice one? Have a lovely day.

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