The Red Tent — Book Discussion Mediated by Chris

Years ago, I found a copy of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and meant to read it. For years I meant to read it. Then I shared it with Carole, who read and loved it, so I gave it to my mom and promised to read it with her. Which I did, and I'm glad I did.

A number of women who read this share many of my impressions and thoughts about this incredible book. But let me let them speak for themselves.

Carole offers a great overview:
I'm a big fan of a re-telling of a tale, and this is the first time I've encountered a re-telling of a tale from the Bible. The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Dinah begins the story by explaining that little is truly known about her. She acknowledges that the Book of Genesis mentions her abduction and rape by a Canaanite prince, and how her brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek vengeance.

While that sets the time and place of the story for the reader, Dinah presents her complete story to us. Anita Diamant weaves a beautiful story through her sensitive narrator. In addition to her life's story, Dinah shares with the reader how women were treated and how they treated one another. As an only daughter with essentially four mothers, Dinah is privy to the world of women, a world they keep shrouded in mystery.

The red tent is where the women retreat as they begin their monthly cycle together. They pamper themselves and each other, particularly any of the women who are with child.

Diamant writes beautifully of all this, and it made me wonder, if this truly was how it was, why did we ever stop that? Now, we soldier on no matter how lousy we feel at any given time. Men may still us find us scary creatures, but we have lost that beautiful mystique. Granted, if the price we had to pay for that was returning to a time of multiple wives and no say in how we live our lives, no one would choose it. But the idea that we could have what we have today and still retreat for a few days each month is a seductive ideal.
Lynn agrees:
Loved it, couldn't put it down. Reading about biblical times from Dinah's point of view was great. I finished it with two thoughts:
  • Joseph was, perhaps with good justification, a real whiner. No wonder his brothers didn't like him.
  • But my overwhelming thought was, how in the name of Heaven did women ever, EVER let the tradition of the Red Tent get away from us. Name me one woman who wouldn't love to have three days every month to escape from all daily chores and tasks and be pampered. Can this possible be brought back into modern life?

I agree: the men did not make out as good in this book as they did in the Bible — but who was writing their book? Certainly not the women, such as Dinah.

I also miss the valuing of women’s ideas, stories and histories — do we bond with other women as deeply as these women did with their shared time and history?

My mom, Rita, and Michelle both liked the glimpse into the culture of the time. Michelle wrote:
Wow...what an eye-opener to the culture of that time. I love reading the bible but it is about a different time and a different place and a different way of life that is frequently difficult to image and even harder to understand. TRT really helps me with contemplative prayer when I try to really image the sights, sounds and smells of ancient times.

If you like this and would like another opportunity to contemplate biblical women try the book Women of the Bible by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda. It is a one-year study of some really great and often overlooked women from ancient Israel and really helps to put my "troubles" into perspective when I study how these women overcame their challenges, faults, mistreatment, betrayal, deceptions....etc.

Lois offered great insight and reminded me that it was fiction:
I found The Red Tent riveting and engrossing. It's the only book that inspired me to stay home from work to finish reading it!

I spend a lot of time reading the Jewish and Christian bibles. The biographies presented in their pages can fly by so fast; at most they're only a couple of chapters long, and sometimes only a few lines. It's easy to not feel the full weight of somebody's life history when it's embodied in a paragraph or two.

Although The Red Tent is largely fictional, it helped put flesh and blood on Dinah. Just having the time period painted in such rich, intimate detail was enlightening. As was the revelation of the midwife profession, which contradicts the notion in some circles that historically, most women have been stay-at-home moms.

I will say that I was disturbed by the way the author took unwarranted liberties with the historical record. The Jewish scriptures say that Dinah was violated and defiled by Prince Hamor; Anita Diamant wrote it as a consensual love story. That's like claiming Joan of Arc died peacefully in her sleep.

I do, however, appreciate Diamont's contribution to feminist fiction. And I thank you guys for opening up this discussion of such a substantial novel!

Donna’s response was very practical:
I read The Red Tent a few years ago and the one thought I came away with was: if only the Israelites were NOT nomads, the Middle East would not be in the MESS it is in today. How's that for simplicity and solving the world's problems!?

On a bit more technical note, though: when sheep graze they take the root of the grass and leave nothing, which is why they had to move in order to sustain themselves.
My response, I hope, rounds out the conversation: I, too, love the retelling of the tale and I miss the camaraderie of the Red Tent. What have we lost by making ourselves “equal” to men in a world where in fact we have to be better just to be regarded as acceptable? When did their terms become ours?

I also loved the reminder as to the importance of our foremothers, who are as overlooked in the Bible as they are by historians.

Lois points out one of my major problems with the book: Dinah was raped. There is nothing romantic about rape. The other “rape” scene with the frog statuette is really creepy (and which may be is why Dinah wasn’t clued in beforehand, and I’m grateful she didn’t have an opportunity to pass on that tradition).

I imagine we have a few coming of age traditions that seem archaic and weird right now. I’ve heard of some women who, when they tell their mother about their first blood, are slapped in the face. Others are taken out to dinner by their parents or fathers to recognize their transition to adulthood. How did your families recognize (or not) your menarche?

Every one of these women agree with me: it is a book we all heartily recommend. If you haven’t read it, pick it up right now. If you have read it, please share your response in the comments section at the end of this entry. Join the conversation!


Anonymous said...

Most Memorable Menarche Moment (tm)? Has to be the one in "Carrie," written by the inimitable Stephen King. Remember Cissy Spacek's portrayal in the movie?

-- Lois

Chris said...

It all comes back to Stephen King in some way, doesn't it?

I think you're right: that DOES count as a MMMM (tm). My friend Beth was taken out to dinner. Definitely nicer than that.

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