May 19, 2011

The Red Tent

My sister Carol lent me this book, saying it was her favourite book of all time, and thereby of course upping the ante on my reaction to it. But I loved it and stayed up till 3 a.m. one night to finish it. The book is based on a few lines in Genesis 34 which tell the story of Dinah (dee-na), the daughter of the patriarch Jacob and his first wife Leah. In the Bible this dramatic and terrible story of treachery is written almost entirely about the men who participated in it. The author of The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, re-imagines it from Dinah's perspective, within the framework of the women of the family.

Although I haven't studied that time period, the scholarship in the book seems fantastic to me. Diamant, according to her bio, isn't an academic, but I felt awed by the consistent and beautiful detail in the book and couldn't fathom the research it must have taken to figure out (or even imagine) this much about an ancient culture. The red tent is an actual place - a tent where all the women of Jacob's family go for three days each month when they have their period - and also a symbol of the sisterhood of the family which "covers" the women with great security throughout their lives. Dinah's biological mother is Leah, but she also considers Jacob's other three wives as her mothers, and the other women of the tribe are an intimate part of her life.

The women's subculture is the real theme of the book. It made me long for such a thing as well - it is partly there in my life with all my own aunties, sisters and cousins and now that I've moved away, with the women who have become my friends. But the geographic closeness of the tribe and especially the warmth and intimacy of the red tent create an unforgettable sense of what we may have lost in our mobile and farflung families.

I have certainly shied away from religious fiction - the evangelical versions of these stories I've encountered (and I may not have given enough of them a chance) seem impossibly mawkish to me. This book isn't. The Jewish author has no love for the patriarchs - the book doesn't reflect well on Jacob and his sons, who became the heads of the tribes of Israel - and the jury seems to be out on Yahweh as well, as one of many gods interwoven into the fabric of the story. The Red Tent made me re-think the tidy Bible stories of my childhood and the way in which the God in whom I believe was present in the lives of the Hebrew people, whose early culture was far from monotheistic.

A worthwhile and thought-provoking book.

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