The Red Tent by Anita Diamant A Critical Response

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant - A Critical Review

 

     Had the Bible been written by women, especially Ms. Diamant, in the way of The Red Tent, I daresay that I may have actually read the Bible cover to cover.  Even the begets!  Had all those begets been written as a more personal story with interesting familial connections, it might have been easier to connect with, make sense of, and those begets would have . . . well . . . mattered.

     There still was eventual confusion as Dinah’s family grew.  By the time her four mothers, the four wives of Jacob, and Jacob’s 12 sons and Dinah all had families of their own, it became hard to keep track of everyone. 

     The Red Tent is one of those books I might never have come across if it had not been on the class reading list.  Had I pulled it out a little from the library shelf to take a peek at the cover, I’m sure I would have pushed it right back into place – which gives meaning to the phrase “Never judge a book by it’s cover.”  I would have taken one look at the lady on the cover dressed in her biblical robes and that would have been that.

     The main character, Dinah, narrates the stories of the families and the traditions connected to the red tent.  She tells about the hard work the young girls and the women do and what she learns about the women’s life cycles, marriage, birthing, midwifery and raising children, all of which is their mysterious world inside the red menstrual tent.  It is amazing that these women live and work so closely together that their cycles coincide.

     Dinah’s four mothers teach her how to survive life in those ancient times.  Each mother has her own ways and their own very distinct personalities and had something of their own to offer Dinah.  “Of course, this is more complicated for me because I had four mothers, each of them scolding, teaching, and cherishing something different about me, giving me different gifts, cursing me with different fears.  Leah gave me birth and her splendid arrogance.  Rachel showed me where to place the midwife’s bricks and how to fix my hair.  Zilpah made me think.  Bilhah listened.  No two of my mothers seasoned her stew the same way.  No two of them spoke to my father in the same tone of voice– nor he to them.” (2)

     Diamant’s writing is so vivid that you can imagine the scenes that she describes, and even smell the smells of the food they cooked and the flowers in the gardens, and feel the heat and dust around you. You could visualize the blood and the horror and anguish of the murders of all the men in the city.

       The way in which Diamant tells the story, it helps to fill in the gaps in the stories of Genesis and about Jacob’s family.  Rather than simply stating that Jacob beget Reuben, Diamant makes it beautiful.  “Bilha says her first clear memory of Jacob is from the day his first child was born.  It was a boy – Reuben – and of course Jacob was delighted.  He took his new son in his arms and danced the baby around and around outside the tent.

     “He was so gentle with the boy,” Bilha said. “He would not let Adah take Reuben away from him even when the little one began to wail.

     “He called his son perfect and a miracle in the world.  I stood beside him and together Jacob and I worshiped the baby.  We counted his fingers and stroked the soft crown of his head.  We delighted in him and in each other’s joy,” Bilhah said. (16)  

  You can feel the pride the women feel at giving their husbands many sons, and you can feel their longing for baby girls and the joy when they do have girls.

     Dinah’s narration in the Prologue begins by explaining how her story was left to the “keeping of men” and so it was not well known.  It was merely a “footnote” in the story of Jacob.  She says, “My name means nothing to you.  My memory is dust.  This is not your fault, or mine.  The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing.  That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father, Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother.  On those rare occasions when I was remembered, it was as a victim.  Near the beginning of your holy book, there is a passage that seems to say I was raped and continues with the bloody tale of how my honor was avenged.  It’s a wonder that any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again.  But some did.  Maybe you guessed that there was more to me than the voiceless cipher in the text.  Maybe you heard it in the music of my name:  the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second soft, for whispering secrets on pillows.  Dee-nah.  (Diamant had me by this point.)  No one recalled my skill as a midwife, or the songs I sang, or the bread I baked for my insatiable brothers.  Nothing remained except a few mangled details about those weeks in Schechem.  There was far more to tell.” (I)

     I believe that Diamant must have heard something in Dinah’s name and guessed that there was more to Dinah than the “voiceless cipher in the text.”  Thank God she did.  Because of Diamant’s ability to weave such a vivid tale that helps us to understand the lives of the women from the Old Testament, for me Dinah has come to life and is now in my own memory.

 

     Diamant, Anita.  The Red Tent.  1997.

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