Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This is a book that I’ve seen a number of times that looked interesting but, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never picked it up. A good friend of mine recently recommended it, so I read it, and I’m so glad I did.

This is an historical novel, expanding the story of Dinah from Genesis 34. The author states that this isn’t an attempt at telling the “real” story, but a fictionalization from what is in the Bible and what is known about the peoples of that area of that time.

Briefly, the story of Genesis 34 states that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, went into the area to visit the women. Shalem, the son of Hamor, raped her, but then decided he was in love with her and asked his father to get her as his bride. Hamor went to talk with Jacob, asking for Dinah as his son’s wife and offering that Jacob could set her bride price. Jacob did so, but several days later, some of Dinah’s brothers went and killed all of the males of the city in revenge for their sister’s rape.

My interpretation of this story is that it’s telling the story of the transition away from “kidnapping the bride.” At the end of the story, Dinah is left as either a defiled maiden or a widow. We hear nothing more about her. As with many stories in the Bible about women, her sole purpose is to marry as a virgin and provide sons to her husband; anything else leaves her defiled and rejected.

Diamant takes this skeletal story and adds flesh to it. We see the world through Dinah’s eyes, and it is mostly a world of women. At that time, the world of men and the world of women were largely separate; Dinah knows her father and her brothers, but her deep relationships are with her mother and aunts. It is a world of polygamy; her aunts are also her father’s wives and many of her brothers are half-brothers. She follows the mother and mother-aunts she adores; learning their skills, and how to handle their strengths and weaknesses. She has less contact with her brothers and much less with her father. The image that the book continually comes back to is that of the “red tent”, or menstrual tent/hut, of the title.

A little over halfway through the book, Diamant tells the story from Genesis 34. What is stated in starkly simple words, with Dinah no more than a casus belli, takes pages of description. In the novel, unlike in Genesis, Dinah is not a victim. She is a willing and enthusiastic participant. Although she and Shalem are in part manipulated–his mother sees them as a good match, both personally and for their communities–their passion for one another is real and reciprocated. Dinah ignores the social stigma of what she is doing and allows Shalem to ask his father to send a royal bride price for her.

What happens between the Hamor, Jacob and Dinah’s brothers is part misunderstanding and part stiff-necked pride. Dinah’s wishes and interests aren’t taken into consideration; it is her father, her brothers, and their pride which are given priority. In the end, what happens is tragedy for Dinah; her husband and all of the males of his family are killed. She is brought back to her family still reeling from the carnage around her.

No longer willing to be a part of the men who destroyed the family she had joined, she curses her father and brothers and returns to her mother-in-law. They leave for her mother-in-law’s family, in Egypt. The last third of the story is set in Egypt, and tells the story of the rest of Dinah’s life.

This is a bare-bones description of a book that is rich in description, of the characters, the cultures, and the world in which the book is set. The author acknowledges in an interview included for this twentieth anniversary of the original publication that we don’t know if the culture truly works the way she wrote it. A good example is the menstrual tent: it is used in many cultures of the area in both space and time, but we don’t know if it was used in that part of Canaan.

The Red Tent is not an expansion of the historical events of Genesis 34. It is a fictional creation using those events as a starting point of a beautifully rich story of a young woman and the alien world in which she lived. I highly recommend it.

Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent. New York, NY: Picador, 1997. Kindle edition. Amazon.

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