The Red Tent (1997)
Author: Anita Diamant
Genre: Historical/Christian (Biblical)
The Red Tent begins with a prologue where Dinah explains that she has been forgotten because "The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing (1)." Unlike her famous father Jacob and brother Joseph, Dinah's life story was relegated to a short and violent tale in Christian and Jewish scripture. Dinah explains to readers that she will tell them about what was lost in the past; namely, everything the truth about Dinah's life and the lives and traditions of her mothers. In the prologue Dinah also explains that as the only surviving daughter in her family, Dinah was constantly told stories and secrets that no one else was privy to. Part one is devoted to Dinah's mothers, who are all sisters, Rachel, Leah (who gave birth to Dinah), Zilpah and Bilhah and how they met Jacob, their cousin and husband. Part two is devoted to Dinah's life, from her birth and childhood, where she was close to famous brother Joseph, to her family's journey to Canaan and her initiation ceremony into womanhood and the red tent after she started menstruating. Soon after her entry into the red tent Dinah meets a handsome prince, Shalem, and is soon in love. SPOILER: Diamant strays from Christian and Jewish scripture at this point in the novel because Dinah is not raped by the prince but is (happily) married to him because they have made love. The prince and his father approach Jacob and try to settle Dinah's dowry. Jacob and his sons refuse the king's terms and Levi and Simon murder Dinah's husband and everyone else in the palace. After the murder Dinah curses her brothers and her father and leaves her family forever. She goes with her mother in law to Egypt and tells no one about the murder. She soon gives birth to a son and spends many unhappy years in Egypt as a midwife. When her adult son, whom Dinah rarely sees,has become powerful in Egypt and her mother in law dies, Dinah moves to another part of Egypt and gets married. Through an amazing coincidence she meets her brother Joseph and finds out that her son is his "right hand man." Dinah then see her brothers again and there is no happy reunion, only Judah acknowledges her presence, before her father, now blind and suffering from dementia, dies. One positive occurrence from the trip is that Dinah learns from a niece she has never met that her name and her mother's names are not forgotten among the women in her family. Dinah returns home where she is a respected and loved midwife and the novels ends with her death and her blessings on readers for listening to her story.
Geographical Setting: Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt
Time Period: approximately 1900 BCE
Anita Diamant's writing style is heavy with emotion and at times it can be rich, sensous and flowing, similar to the language in the Song of Solomon. Sights, sounds and smells are described in detail, as are the first sexual experiences between Jacob and his four wives and a mother's pain at having a miscarriage. The descriptions of bread dipped in honey and the small cakes that are sacrificed many times to a goddess are just some of the small details that Diamant includes in the book, which brings an ancient time, place and culture alive. Though Dinah lives in a nomadic family with four wives and one father, Diamant's writing illustrates that humans have always felt the same emotions, like deep love for a baby, hatred of a father and grief for a lost love, no matter where or when they lived. Diamant's ability to juggle the huge cast of characters in the novel but not overwhelm the reader with all the names is accomplished because she focuses on Dinah, her mother and her aunts; all those allowed in the red tent. Also, readers feel close to Dinah because they see her story through her eyes and Dinah directly speaks to readers at the beginning and end of the book, asking them and thanking them for listening to her story. The pace of the novel isn't fast, as the novel follows Dinah's life, from her birth to death. The pace does pick up when Dinah's husband is murdered and Dinah curses her father and brothers and she then quickly leaves for Egypt. However, once she settles in her mother-in-law's house, the pace again slows down. The tone can be otherwordly and even mysterious in the prologue and the end of the novel, when Dinah, a forgetten figure in Jewish and Christian scripture, speaks directly to readers. The tone is also varied throughout the novel; tales from Dinah's early childhood make the tone light but many events are very dark, such as Shalem's murder and the consequences of the act. But, the tone is ultimately happy because the novel ends with Dinah thanking readers for listening to her story and she blesses them and their children. Readers can stop reading and think, perhaps Dinah, or at least the Dinah Diamant created, isn't forgetten anymore. The settings in the novel come alive through Diaman't descriptions. For example, while the family travels to Canaan, Dinah describes dust in the bread and the hot sun is always present in Dinah's life before she goes to Egypt and she lives indoors instead of under tents. Many of the themes in the novel, motherhood, sisterhood, women's spirituality and women's communities make it clear that the red tent is more than a piece of cloth- it is a powerful symbol for Dinah and her mothers.
Read-alikes: If you fell in love with the dynamics between Rachel and Leah and want to learn more about their characters, you might check out Rachel and Leah by Orson Scott Card. It is Book 3 of the Women of Genesis series. The series begins with Sarah. This novel is also describing each women from their childhood and onward in amazing detail. The setting would also be the same as part of Dinah's childhood in The Red Tent. Song of Hannah by Eva Etzioni-Harvey has two main characters Hannah and Pninah that are similar to the characters of Rachel and Leah. They each become rivals for the attention their husband and thus, have to cope with that. It also focuses on similar themes of motherhood, childbirth, and the complex world of human relationships. If you enjoyed The Red Tent as a coming-of-age story you may also thoroughly enjoy The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. This story focuses on Alessandra, the daughter of a wealthy textile merchant, who falls in love with an orphan painter. The writing is detailed especially with the descriptions of Florence and the artwork. The tone also varies from light to dark because of the complicated situation in which the main character is placed. Another series for women of the bible is the Canaan trilogy by Marek Halter beginning with Sarah. This novel is written from the persective of Sarah telling her life story from her deathbed. The theme is also focused on menstruation but unlike Dinah, Sarah does not embrace her coming into womanhood happily. She flees from the town and eventually runs into Abram, whom she eventually marries. The tone also varies from light to dark because of the following of the events in Sarah's life. This novel is another one that will reach out and grab onto your heart as you become engrossed in this women's tale. In her novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring Tracy Chevalier creates a "back" story for the woman who posed for Jan Vermeer for a painting he made in 17th century Holland. This novel will appeal to readers who want to discover another woman whose story was never told because like Dinah, the woman in Vermeer's painting is a mystery. Readers who also want to immerse themselves in another time and place and soak up all the beautful details the author supplies will enjoy this book. What Dinah Thought by Deena Metzger is for readers who want to continue reading about Dinah but would like to read about her in a modern context and explore how she has had an influence on authors today and the characters they create. The novel isabout a Jewish-American woman who, while filming a documentary in Isreal, falls in love with a Palestinian man. Lilian Nattel's The River Midnight is perfect for readers who want further explore some themes in The Red Tent, such as motherhood, midwifery and friendship between women. Nattel's novel is about four Jewish women who have grown up together and who live in a turn of the century village in Poland and every aspect of the women's lives, and their community, is explored in rich detail. The Preservationist by David Maine is about 600 year-old Noah, Maine calls him Noe, how he and his family builds his ark and how they and all the animals survive the flood. Maine doesn’t leave any details out, from God speaking to Noe to all the animal droppings on the ark. The Preservationist could appeal to readers of Diamant’s book because it, like The Red Tent, focuses on an episode in Christian and Jewish scripture. Also, readers who enjoyed the personal “take” on a past time and place, like in The Red Tent, could like Maine’s book because readers find out, for example, how Noe's wife reacts to his news that he’s going to build an ark (she thinks his idea is terrible but many years of marriage tells her she can’t change his mind, so she says nothing). The novel has some differences because it doesn’t focus on one character, like Dinah in The Red Tent, and Maine’s writing style is quite different from Diamant’s- less elaborate language and descriptions of a character’s inner life and emotions. Margaret George's Mary, Called Magdalene is an epic novel about Mary Magdalene's life, from her childhood in a prosperous neighborhood to getting possessed by demons, meeting Jesus and then being the head of the Christian church in Ephesus. Mary, Called Magdalene is appealing because it is about a female biblical figure and, like Dinah, some parts of Mary Magdalene’s story are a mystery- she is often thought of as a prostitute. In George’s book, as in Diamant’s, many biblical figures and important events are described to readers through a woman's eyes. Diamant's other books are very different from The Red Tent, but they might still appeal to readers: Good Harbor (2002), a contemporary story of female friendship, will appeal who liked Diamant's depiction of women's complicated relationships; The Last Days of Dogtown (2005), the story of a 19th century Massachusetts colony of rejects, will appeal to those who liked Diamant's vivid historical detail and rich characterization. The Red Tent led the way for other feminist/Biblical literary novels: India Edghill's Wisdom's Daughter: a Novel of Solomon and Sheba (2005) uses many different narrators to flesh out King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba's brief interaction. Rebecca Kohn's The Gilded Chamber (2004) tells the story of Esther and how she came to save the Jewish people. Other literary historical fiction that will appeal to "The Red Tent crowd" does not necessarily take place in the same time period. Jane Rogers's Mr. Wroe's Virgins (2000), set in mid-19th century England, tells the story of seven virgins sent to live with a self-proclaimed Christian profit; the story is told in the voice of four of the women. Nomi Eve's The Family Orchard (2001) is a multi-generational saga about a family in Israel from the 1800s to the present day, told in the voices of several family members. For readers interested in the re-imagined story aspect of The Red Tent rather than the historical aspect, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1991) re-imagines King Lear on a farm in present-day Iowa, told in the voice of the oldest daughter. To revisit the family of Jacob, try The Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner. Buechner's retelling focuses on Jacob, but makes him human and relatable. Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers also tells the story of Jacob's family, but focuses on the male children. Queenmaker by India Edghill is set in biblical times with biblical characters. Michal, the main female, is an intelligent and strong woman and the story paints a picture of a nurturing and feminine environment. Another book centering around Christian themes is The Poisonwood Bible: a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. Set in the Belgium Congo during 1959, the story chronicles the lives of Nathan Price, a self-righteous missionary, and his family as he moves them from Georgia to the village of Kilanga, in Congo. Set amid the Congolese war for freedom from Belgium, the book recounts the lives through the eyes of the four daughters as they grow and learn to adapt to their tumultuous surroundings. This book would be great for readers interested in more Christian themes, as well as those interested in strong female characters and their struggles through life in the Congo. Another book that might be of interest to those who enjoy reading about historical times and strong female characters is The Last Empress by Anchee Min. Set in the 19th century, the book recounts the life of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, who ruled over China from her husband's death in 1861 until her own in 1908. The first part of the Empress's life is covered in Min's book Empress Orchid, which recounts the woman's early life as a concubine in China. The Last Empress is the story of the Empress Dowager's dramatic transition from a young woman to a wise and skillful leader, ruling over China for more than four decades. This book is an excellent read-alike for those who enjoy historical fiction but still want accurate detail and research of the time period, much like the case of the book, The Red Tent. Another book containing deep historical detail and life through a woman's eyes is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Set in Japan through the 1930s and 1940s, Memoirs describes the life of Sayuri, who is sold to a Geisha house at the tender age of nine. Golden writes the story in first person narrative and uses Sayuri's feelings and insights about the life of a Geisha to describe a world that is both cruel and manipulative, yet still vibrant and culturally rich. This book is perfect for readers that enjoyed reading about Dinah's struggles and internal strength (as Golden does a remarkable job describing Sayuri's strength) as well as for those who are interested in reading a book that is considered fiction yet brings a well researched, authentic look at a different life and time.
Red Flags: As long as the reader is comfortable with the subject matter (woman stuff!), there are no red flags.