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.