The story of Dinah, a tragic character from the Bible whose great love, a prince, is killed by her brother, leaving her alone and pregnant. The novel traces her life from childhood to death, in the process examining sexual and religious practices of the day, and what it meant to be a woman.
The red tent of the title is the separate tent set aside for the women where they go while menstruating to keep apart from the men. The Red Tent then is a very appropriate title as the book focused almost exclusively on feminine concerns: becoming a woman, giving birth and finding a husband. I appreciated this insight into their secret world and I liked the idea of telling a masculine story to recentre it around the women.
But, I have two complaints that drop this work down to a 3-star rating. First, the first major section, in which Dinah relates the stories she has heard from and about her 'mothers' is necessary for character development and contains some good stories as well, but it just seems too long and too detailed. I almost stopped before getting past this part.
Second, Diamant seems to be determined to marginalize or demonize the male characters; especially those that are primarily the protagonists in the Biblical tales. Yes, the Bible is male-centered and the women in the Biblical stories are mostly marginalized. But the whole book would have seemed more real if Diamant had made a few of the male characters 3-dimensional (or at least 2-dimensional).
Her apparent purpose - to show that the women in these stories probably had a lot to do with events and that they and most of the men probably believed in many gods and godesses - could have been accomplished with the book still being female-centered, but without making nearly every male either brutal, clueless, and/or irrelevent.
This isn't the tale she tells. The Jewish Times calls the novel an "extended midrash or exegesis--filling in gaps left by the biblical text" and I've seen it described as what the Bible might have been if told by women. And certainly that female point of view and Diamant's research and imagination give a fresh, vivid and completely engrossing perspective to this tale of the time of the Biblical "patriarchs." But this isn't one of those reverent, dogmatic biblical stories; this doesn't read as a Jewish version of "Christian fiction" and in fact there is quite a bit of goddess worship depicted in this tale.
Dinah tells how she "had four mothers"--her birth mother Leah and three "mother-aunties" and as the only daughter among their many sons, she was the one told the stories of the women in "the red tent"--the menstrual tent that is the province of the women. The novel is told in three parts. The first, "My Mothers" brings those four wives of Jacob, all sisters by different mothers, to life: Practical and earthy Leah, with one blue and one green eye who smells of baked bread. Beautiful Rachel, a healer who smells of sweet water. Quick-minded, spiritual and bitter half-Egyptian Zilpah, the half-Nubian Bilnah, wise and good with hair like "springy grass" who smells of loam. Diamant makes wonderful characters of them all."My Story" puts a different, but logical twist on the scant details in the tragedy of Dinah in the biblical text, and "Egypt" deals with her life in Egypt and how survival turns to healing.
If I have a criticism, it's more what she makes of the men of the bible. I thought in the first half her depictions were quite nuanced, that Dinah showed both good and bad in her father and brothers--I'd even call Jacob quite lovable in the first half, and there were interesting sides at first to her Joseph.
To some extent, I understand this depiction. As she said in the afterward, she rethought the "rape" because of the love shown by the man accused in submitting himself to circumcision. Even without the motive of a sister raped, the retribution depicted in the bible is ugly enough. Take away that motive, then Simon and Levi at least can only be villains.
But Diamant tars with a far broader brush, and in that I felt flattened her male characters and missed an opportunity when reunited. After all, the story of Joseph and his brothers is among the most moving in the bible because it is a tale of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. I wish Diamant had left Dinah and her brothers with a bit of that grace.
Despite that criticism, this was a pleasure to read, and I loved much of the spins and twists woven out of the Biblical narrative and the depiction of the bonds between women at the dawn of civilization.
I found the book wonderfully written, beautifully constructed, characters well drawn. An excellent book.
I admit I was really hung up on the whole "biblical" side of the story before beginning my reading, and that was a bit off putting. As much as I love to explore religions of all kinds and their histories, reading a book about biblical figures isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Even with the reassurances of friends and fellow bloggers that I had nothing to worry about, I still hesitated. I dragged my feet and even considered not reading it just yet. But I voted for the book in a group read and it would not look very good if I did not at least give it a try. And, of course, just like everyone said, I had nothing to worry about.
I loved the prologue. It is one of those that grabbed my attention from the very first moment. I was sure I would love the book. As I continued on, however, I became disillusioned. The story itself was interesting, including the history of Dinah’s family, in particular that of her mothers and how they came to be with her father, Jacob. It was written in the style of a story being told to the next generation—the exact atmosphere the author was most likely hoping to achieve. And yet, I found my attention wandering. I wanted to be a part of the story, rather than just having it told to me (I blame that more on my mood than on the book itself). Not to mention I wanted to get to know Dinah. Her family history was interesting and all, but I wanted to know more about Dinah.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when the book completely won be over—when I knew I might end up loving it after all. It was about page 161 when Dinah was left behind by her family to serve her grandmother, Rebecca, in Mamre.
Despite my reservations about the biblical aspects of the novel, I couldn't help but think of the Bible stories I was raised on as I read; and I wish I'd remembered them a little more clearly. Throughout the early part of the novel, I repeatedly flipped back to the family tree at the beginning of the book, making sure I remembered who belonged to who and how they were all connected.
What drew me most to the story was the strength of the women and the joy and care they took in their traditions and beliefs. Even though they lived in a patriarchal society, their rituals and traditions were empowering. It was a time when a girl becoming a woman was celebrated; whereas the day would eventually come when it was something to hide and be seen as a curse. There was one moment in the novel in which Jacob learns of the women’s rituals surrounding a girl’s first menses. He becomes angry and violent. I couldn’t help but feel very sad at that point. It was a foreshadowing of what would come—not in the book so much, but in reality—such traditions eventually died out in many cultures and were no longer reveled in. Just as how the stories, once passed down from mother to daughter, seemingly became the realm of men. Or at least, their stories became the ones heard and repeated most often.
Dinah had a relatively happy childhood, but her adulthood was a difficult one, no thanks to two of her brothers. I most enjoyed the time we spent in Egypt together, although it was not always the happiest of times. It was during the second half of the book that I really felt I got to know Dinah, and became a part of her world. I cried with her and took joy in the happy moments. She truly is an admirable character and I am glad I got the chance to know her in The Red Tent.
The Red Tent reminded me a bit of one of my favorite novels: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. The two are very different books, of course, but they both feature strong female characters and touch on similar issues that women faced in our history as well as on a spiritual level.
By the time I finished the last chapter of the book, I felt satisfied. There is so much more I could say about this book. It is full of nuances I have not even begun to touch here. Even with those moments when I doubted the book would live up to my expectations, I can truly say this is a book well worth reading.
It's the sort of story I like, in theory, one told in the interstices of known tales, in between icons and themes we know and to which we are drawn. The fact that this unknown story is that of the women in a man's story adds interest. From that point of view, it is interesting. It not only provides an intriguing imagined life to the flat names and begats of the Bible's women, but reminds one how much could be and would be unsaid, how many women and even gods have been forgotten.
That said, the story often strays into cliché, the writing is serviceable but seldom moving, and the extreme prettiness of the female characters, handsomeness of the love interests, and lustiness of their nuptial joys can grate.
Interesting, engaging and imaginative, but occasionally trite or excessive.
The reader, Carol Bilger, does a fine job, and the musical interludes (mostly at the ends and beginnings of tapes) are genuinely appropriate and atmospheric.
Dinah was the only daughter of Jacob. Jacob's four wives - Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah dote upon the girl. She is included in the stories told in the comraderie of the Red Tent, where menstruating women are secluded. The first part of the book revolves around her relationship with her "four mothers". In particular, she grows close to her beautiful aunt Rachel, who is a midwife.
The book runs quite smoothly up until the halfway point, like a lazy river. Told from Dinah's perspective, the tales of the Red Tent, descriptions of the mothers and their sons, life as a shepherding family - even when it was slow, it was interesting to read. The sudden, extreme violence that changes Dinah's life is so jarring and so unexpected that, at first, I thought that it had to be a dream. After re-reading it a few times, I realized that it was no dream and that I had been carried along so peacefully that the sudden level 5 rapids freaked the hell out of me.
I very much enjoyed this book. It is an era of history that I know little about and was interested in learning more about. I caught myself wondering "now, how on Earth would Anita Diamant know this?" about the rituals and lives of the women. Certainly, no contemporary texts remain about womens lives in the Biblical era - if they were ever written, at all. I understood that Anita Diamant worked with what she had and took liberties with the rest - and in knowing that, I was able to detach myself from the usual historical skepticism and just enjoy the book.
A beautiful celebration of womanhood, the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, sister of Joseph.
Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob, and with a dozen brothers by her father's four wives, she is treasured by her "mothers". She grows to womanhood amongst her mother-aunts, priveledged to be part of the red menstrual tent even before her own womanhood.
Forced to Egypt pregnant and alone, and cut off from her family by her greedy brothers, Dinah's life journey as a woman of women brings her good reputation and sanctuary wherever she goes.
I loved this book, it's celebration of womanhood deeply touched and delighted me. Dinah is a true heroine and I shed tears of joy, despair and grief for her all the way through this book.
Following the life of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, we see how Jewish women in that time, in the Middle East, were treated by the men who essentially owned them. And we see how the women used their own strengths to support each other, how their situation caused them to use what influence they had in ways that either benefited or damaged other members of their sisterhood, and how this influence could be made to affect the lives of the men in their tribe. Dinah’s story demonstrates clearly how human nature escapes from between the fingers of a hand trying to control people by squeezing their bodies and souls into a malleable mass of silly putty.
The book, for which Diamant did scrupulous research, also provides the only clear Biblical definition of marriage we have: one man, many women. Many religious people who would deny that same-sex partners should be allowed to marry and call it marriage point toward Genesis 2:24, where it says that man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh. Never mind that this verse appears right after Adam’s rib has been used to create Eve, and that Adam and Eve were both without father or mother (other than God, of course, but hardly the earthly equivalent implied). Never mind that Eve was the only game in town for Adam, so he had no choice of any kind. Whatever the reason for this verse to appear where it does, it was roundly ignored by the descendants of this famous pair. The children of Adam and Eve formed themselves into nomadic tribes in which one man had several wives, and he relegated them to the red tent when they were sick and unclean—that is, during their cycles of birthing, menses, and other “illnesses.”
The Red Tent gives modern readers a fascinating insight into the relationship between men and women, and between women and women, in a time when the Judeo-Christian religious tradition itself was being formed—and, true to the historical period, she does it with precious little religion of any kind.
As we follow Dinah through her early years and adolescence, we witness her coming of age and becoming one with mother earth. We watch her personal growth as she learns to love, to lose, and to love again. We watch as she trades the family of her youth for the family of her maturity.
Biblical history takes a back seat here, giving the story just enough to form the backdrop of a powerful story. Dinah's brother Joseph is portrayed more realistically in this story as a man who wears his celebrity amongst the Egyptians as a heavy yoke instead of a crown. He becomes much more human.
The characters in The Red Tent became so much alive for me that I hated to see the story end. Highly recommended.
Diamant shows her love of Biblical history and scholarship by presenting the smallest details and showing their importance. She embraces the tone of a woman of the time. She takes every scrap of mention of the women in Jacob's life and weaves a beautiful and compelling tale. She creates characters with spirits. You'd swear they were women you could meet soon, women you could admire and learn from. While reading many Bible stories, I've often be confused by the motives of the characters and wanted to know why they acted a certain way. I knew why the women in the book did everything they did. I still don't understand why the men acted the way they did.
This is a very female story. The title of the book should make that obvious-it's named for the isolation of women during their periods. Every day life is important-cooking, cleaning, weaving, child-rearing. Some of the best writing she does is when she describes childbirth. I rarely get weepy when reading, but I did choke up when Dinah describes the need for a special song or prayer for a mother when she first looks upon her newborn. She also describes the distance women in this time had from Jacob's god and reminds the reader that when this story was written, the world was still polytheistic, ruled by many gods, of which, the god of Abraham was one.
I've read about midrashes, stories that rabbi's wrote to explain the actions of the characters in the Bible or because there seems to be a gap. The story of Lilith as the first wife of Adam is one of these, if memory serves me correctly. I think that Diamant wrote this in that tradition. I commend her efforts and wish that other novels taking on the lives of women of the Bible were so well-written and concieved.
I have no particular problem with retellings, and in fact enjoy fairy tale retellings quite a bit when I can recognize the original story and see where an author has gone into his or her own interpretation of it. In the same vein as The Mists of Avalon, The Red Tent takes a male-dominated story and tells it from the women's point of view. That's great as far as it goes, though few of the men come out in a good light in this telling. Beyond that, I simply wasn't engaged. I found it really boring, maybe because it was so epic in scope or maybe because I felt like the story wasn't reinterpreted so much as completely changed. I wasn't offended - though I imagine some might be - but I was constantly off-kilter as a result and not really sinking into the story.
The Take Away: Dinah, pronounced DEE-nah, plays an impossibly tiny, almost overlooked role in the Bible. I love the way Diamant expands.
I have no idea as far as the historical accuracy detailed, but I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Having four mothers was very cool. I made me with that I at least had aunts like that. It also makes me think of the village concept for raising a child. How much are we - with our modern advantages - missing out on?
I felt badly for Dinah's loss and sorrow. The contrast to the biblical picture raises so many doubts in my mind about the treatment of women in the bible. How did Tamar get a fair shake?
The story made me very aware of why God had some of his rules and anger. It cemented the missing details in my mind, right or wrong.