When I first started reading The Red Tent, I was really excited. I thought, “Boy, I’m going to love this — the setting, the idea of a small, hillside community, the descriptions of a time I’ve read about since childhood, and a female narrator filling in the gaps to change herself from a minor character in the Bible to an intriguing observer sharing treasured tidbits of information– I was drawn in. But before long, I found the actions in the story rather crude, and the talk too much about sex, also in rather vivid descriptions. However, the narration got past that, and became a more animated story about Dinah’s learning to understand all the complicated relationships in a large, melded community, the skills she learned as a woman in ancient times, their traditions, and where she fit as one of the youngest children and one of few females in this clan gathering. The red tent was a place of rest from the daily grind and the company of men, as the women experienced their monthly menstruation in sync at the time of the full month, and, in that intimate seclusion, shared their memories, hopes, and dreads. I was hooked.
Dinah, only daughter of Jacob (who has about three lines in the book of Genesis), becomes an enchantress weaving a spell over her listeners as she relates the stories of her four mothers (sisters, the daughters of Laban), her childhood running through the dusty hills with her brother, Joseph (milk-brother because his mother was unable to suckle him), the natures of her much older brothers, and the hatred and contempt felt by her mothers for her grandfather, Laban, who cheated the son-in-law who had worked for him without pay, built up his herds, expanded his wealth, and trained his shepherd dogs without ever receiving recognition or owning any part of the fruit of his labours, and who was, above all, a cruel and lazy lout. The Old Testament facts all fit the story but there is a rich and well-researched expansion here that provides a fuller picture and greater understanding of the times. It is a story of grindstones and looms, baking and the making of beer, the practice of midwifery, and the worshipping of their own gods despite Jacob’s clinging to his “one God”, the God of Abraham. It is a story of adventure and misadventure, romance and romance thwarted, grievances and reconciliations.
Dinah retells the story of Isaac, and that of Jacob and Esau, of the old age of her grand-mother, Rebecca, who became like a seer known to people far and wide, the caravans and traders that become part of their history, and a completely different take on her own defilement, and how she ended up cursing her family and escaping their encampment to begin a new life in Egypt.
I found this a most credible telling and an intriguing, and compelling one at that. I was a bit surprised by the author’s note at the end of the book where Diamant thanks people who seem to have opened doors for her to access research materials but never actually credits the ideas she used throughout the story (as other authors I’ve read have done), saying ‘this idea came from here, but this was of my own invention based on’ whatever. I think that had she done so, it would have enhanced the story for me. Nonetheless, it was one of those books that, when you turn the last page, you are filled with sadness and regret that it is finished. It is full of descriptions that make you feel you are there and of characters you understand for the first time as having normal, everyday foibles and flaws. This is Diamant’s first historical fiction work (published in 1997) and I think the only one she based in biblical times, but I hope it will not be the last. * * * * *
The story has also been made into a 2-part, 4-hour miniseries for TV, aired last December and also available at Amazon.