The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Posted November 8, 2019 by Amber in Reviews / 4 Comments

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The Red Tent

The Red Tent

by Anita Diamant

Publisher: St. Martin's Press on January 1, 1997
Genre: Egyptian Mythology, Feminism, Historical Fiction, Mesopotamian Mythology
Target Age Group: Adult

Rating: ★★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that tell of her father, Jacob, and his twelve sons.

Told in Dinah's voice, Anita Diamant imagines the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood--the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of the mothers--Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah--the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through childhood, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Dinah's story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past.

 

I first read The Red Tent for tenth grade English.  It was a curious choice, as the protagonist is a figure from the Bible, and I don’t think it is one most other schools teach.  Despite being assigned academic reading, The Red Tent stole 15-year-old me’s heart because it was an empowering story about women in a world I was familiar with… and in a world where I had been taught only the men truly mattered.

In the years since, I have found different reasons to love this book as I’ve read and re-read it.  I love the idea of the red tent itself – a time where women celebrated together during menstruation as opposed to the culturally disgusted view my culture has of this natural process.  Rachel’s story meant so much to me when I was going through a hard time, and Zilpah’s staunch spirituality always impressed me.  There are so many different women in this book at so many different stages of their lives and experiencing different things… in many ways, The Red Tent is a celebration of the female experience and I think that’s amazing.

Outside of the thematic elements… I would say this book it cut firmly in three parts.  Part one is the story of Dinah’s three mothers, and my person favorite.  Part two is about Dinah’s childhood, teen years, and first love.  Part three is Dinah’s adulthood and time in Egypt.  All three parts have very different feels, and to those familiar with the biblical version of Dinah’s story, Anita Diamant has taken some liberties.

Very little of this story is historical fact, as all we know of Dinah’s story is a single chapter in the book of Genesis.  Many biblical versions of this story say that Dinah was raped, and indeed within the story, Dinah has no voice of her own.  In the Bible, Simeon and Levi are heroes who have avenged the rape of their sister.  Dinah herself has no voice.  However, in The Red Tent, Diamant has chosen to interpret differently:  this is not a rape, but the two characters fall in love, and Simeon and Levi are the villains for much of the story.  I could probably write a whole essay on the biblical word choice in some translations within Dinah’s story and whether they considered her personally violated or their property ruined… but that would tell us nothing of the book.

I like the first part best because of the variety of characters.  Every time I re-read this, I am astounded by how short part one is.  I love all Dinah’s mothers – Leah, Rachel, Bilpah, and Zilpah.  They are all such distinct personalities and I enjoy their stories.  I find part three – when we enter Egypt with the mourning Dinah – to be the hardest part to read.  The pacing in this book, for me, seems entirely unbalanced and moves quickest at the beginning.  The end of the story drags.  While Diamant’s writing is beautiful throughout the book, there’s definitely more of a honey-thickness to the ending where the beginning is spun sugar: laughter, and lightness.  The tone change makes sense within the parameters of Dinah’s journey, so by no means is this poorly written, but it is not my personal preference.

One of the things I struggled with in my latest read was whether this would still be considered a feminist retelling, or if the way the women lessen themselves before their husbands (at least in person – there’s definitely jeering in the red tent itself) would make it problematic.  Women certainly are reduced to the typical tropes of childbearing, cooking, and weaving.  There’s a lot of emphasis on women wanting to have babies… but… there’s also Zilpah, who balances it out by saying, “listen, I did the thing, no more”.  And of course this is historical fiction and while women are certainly honored in ways they are not now, the flip side of that is the imbalance of gender roles in this era.  This was the middle east in about 1800 BCE, so… yes, culturally, things were different and we can only speculate based on the limited resources we have.

All in all, I still enjoy The Red Tent, especially the beginning of it.  The end is a little sappy for me, but I think that Anita Diamant did a good job bringing to life one of the biblical women who had no voice in her own story.  The world she builds feels historically possible, and the characters are all unique and interesting in their own ways.  If for no other reason, The Red Tent is worth taking a look at for anyone interested in historical fiction and historical women because I haven’t run across anything quite like it.  Taking on biblical characters, even in modern times, is chancy and Diamant did a wonderful job.

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Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★★
Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★★★
Writing: ★★★★
Pacing: ★★★
Writing: ★★★★
Narrator: ★★★ 1/2
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
Overall: ★★★★

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Have you ever wanted to know more about a female figure from a theological text?  I grew up in a predominantly Christian household, and I was so thirsty to see strong women in the Bible when I was being told I was “less than”.  Which figures from history would you read a book about?  Let me know in the comments!

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4 responses to “The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

  1. Oh wow, this sounds like it is intense but also powerful and emotional. I have read an adult historical fic by Diamant and I really enjoyed it, so I do need to read more of her books and this may be where I should continue. I am always drawn to books which handle grief as a topic, and you mention it being such a key scene in the book. Great review x

    Olivia Roach recently posted: A Dream So Dark [Book Review]
    • Amber

      Out of curiosity, which have you read? I’ve also read The Boston Girl and really enjoyed it… but I have The Last Days of Dogtown and Day After Night sitting unread on my shelf. I’d be interested in your thoughts regardless if you have a review link handy, or just want to chat. I feel like most people aren’t familiar with this author in this corner of the blogosphere, and I really like her work!

      There’s a lot of grief and recovery in The Red Tent, and on a few different levels. I feel like Diamant had more she could have explored in Zilpah and Bilhah’s stories as well, but there was only so much room in the book and they were minor characters. I wholeheartedly recommend The Red Tent. 🙂