I enjoyed The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This novel was first published in 1997 and while reading it I got a strong sense of storytelling similar to that of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1982) and Hellen of Troy by Margaret George (2006). Overall the story was quite imaginative and I enjoyed this liberal twist on a story that only receives a small blip in the Old Testament.
A WriterAlina Book Review
The Red Tent
One thing you have to remember while reading The Red Tent is that this story is a re-imagining of the story of Jacob’s only daughter Dinah, which is a story that only receives a paragraph or two in the Old Testament. The Red Tent is divided into three parts: 1) the story of how Leah and Rachael became Jacob’s wives and the time before Dinah was born, 2) Dinah’s life before her marriage, and 3) what happened in her life after her tragic marriage.
This blurb comes from goodreads.com:
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 are about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood–the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers–Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah–the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through a hard-working youth, 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. Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling with a valuable achievement in modern fiction: a new view of biblical women’s society.
The Story and It’s Delivery
Some of the stories told in The Red Tent are familiar because it closely follows Jacob’s well known story from the bible. But each tale has a more female perspective since this is truly the story of the women around Jacob and not about Jacob himself.
Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent is told from the storytelling perspective of the dead Dinah, who is reflecting on her life and the legacy that was left behind after her death. Diamant addresses in the first pages of the book, through Dinah’s narrative, that her story may not entirely be the same as the one we are all familiar with. This is a nice reminder for the reader that if you are looking for an “accurate” bible retelling, you should probably look elsewhere.
Diamant’s prose were well crafted and the storytelling well justified; there was only one time when I questioned how Dinah could have been able to tell the story of an event that she was not present for, but I convinced myself that it’s implied that she was somehow told of the events afterward. I loved the details of the women’s life among Jacob, though I must admit that I had to remind myself on several occasions that this was a time when it was primarily the men who worshiped the one God, women were free to worship the various faces of the Goddess (even though the bible would sometimes imply otherwise). So it was fascinating to learn about the gods and goddesses that Dinah’s mothers worshiped and how it affected their daily lives. This is among the many aspects of the world building that enriched the storytelling and character development.
Due to the style of the story there is a lot more “telling” rather than “showing,” which makes sense since the story is being told is a storytelling style, like you’re listening to your grandmother telling tales about her past so long ago. A lot more story ground could be traveled due to this style, but at the same time I felt more separate from the characters than I would had the story been told differently. Though I was happy that there was a distinct flavor to each of the women within the story… but more about that next.
Anita Diamant’s story was an interesting combination of intimate and distant, for half of the characters (primarily the female characters) felt tangible and alive whereas the other half of the cast (primarily the male characters) felt flat and one dimensional (unfortunately I can’t even say they were 2 dimensional because the men played such a distant roll in so much of the story that there wasn’t much to hold onto when they came up other than Dinah’s feelings about them).
Because this is a woman’s story, every woman that comes into the story is distinct and different with their own perspectives and ways of speaking. The nice thing about the narrative is that Dinah often takes on the manors of speech of her various mothers when she’s telling their individual stories, which makes if feel like the audience can be closer to that character. Each woman has their pride and modesty, what they’re proud of and what they’re ashamed of; some of these traits are relayed stronger than others because Dinah spends a lot of time describing her four mothers Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. These woman felt tangible and alive, most of the female characters leaped off the page.
Unfortunately, because of the times and the separation of men and women as part of the culture, there was little interaction with the male characters of the story. Jacob was the most well rounded of all the male characters and even he fell flat as if he were a Ken doll walking across stage. The second most interesting male character was Joseph, who we only really see as a boy who played with his sister and a briefly tormented soul as he travels to visit his dying father. Everyone else, including Dinah’s first lover/husband, are paper props that are even more minor than the extras who fill crowded street in a movie. Rather disappointing if you ask me, but when you consider this is a story primarily about women… I guess I could let it pass.
I actually found the world building in The Red Tent to be quite believable. As I mentioned before this is a time when very few people believed in the one God and worshiped various gods and goddesses. Each set of peoples were shown to respect one god or other and the way of life was explained and demonstrated through the actions of the characters.
The aspect that I enjoyed the most was the concept of the red tent and what it meant to Dinah and her family and what it meant to those who were not part of her family. This is an aspect of life that’s not often addressed in stories. In many cultures a woman’s cycle is a time of separation and sacredness (something that we don’t really think about in today’s modern age). And this ritual of togetherness is a central aspect that I felt brought the story together (which was the intention). Even though there was no red tent in part three of the novel, it was implied that Dinah wished there was one.
I also enjoyed the fact that there was an emphasis on a woman’s usefulness and how there was more than just cooking and having babies, though there were plenty of characters who made that their specialty. Women cooked, gathered, cared for children, wove cloths and linens, practiced midwifery, danced and sang, and served the gods in various capacities.
A Word or Two About Historical Fiction and the Bible
The Red Tent is a work of historical fiction, it’s telling is accurate to the way of living at the time of the story being told. But if you are looking for an “accurate” account of Dinah’s story from the Old Testament then you’ll have to look elsewhere. (Personally I don’t believe there is any such thing, but that’s just my opinion.) Like The Mists of Avalon, or any fairy tale retelling for that matter, The Red Tent is an embellished story that uses a well known story as its base. So there are a few areas in which the author takes creative license, but that’s the point of fiction.
I found Diamant’s story intriguing, engaging, and plausible. The feminine details were strong and wraps the reader in the lives of the women the story tells about. And that’s what I enjoyed.
Side Note about The Red Tent
Apparently Lifetime made a mini-series of The Red Tent that aired in 2014. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll certainly be looking into it. I’m sure if you have a Netflix subscription you can watch it, but since I don’t I’ll have to figure out another way. IMDB gave it a 7.3 out of 10 so it can’t be all that bad.
Anyway, if you enjoy historical fiction and don’t mind creative license when it comes to biblical stories, then I think that Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent is worth your time.
What are your thoughts about historical fiction based off of biblical stories? What makes creative license acceptable for you? Have you read The Red Tent? What did you think about it? I’d love to hear from you; feel free to leave a comment below.
If you enjoyed this post maybe you’ll be interested in one of the following posts by WriterAlina: