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April 8, 2016

Book Review || The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

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red-tent-book-cover
Anita Diamant's 'The Red Tent' is a beautiful rendition of womanhood. Set in the time of Jacob in the Bible, it follows the oft untold story of biblical mothers and daughters who are often only mentioned in passing. Though set hundreds of years in the past, its themes and concepts are - frighteningly - still valid in much of the world today.

The narrator is Dinah, whose story in the Bible consists of mere mention as a daughter born to Jacob of Leah in Genesis 30:21 and then later as a reason for the destruction of Hamor and its people in Genesis 34.

Dinah has neither voice nor agency in the Bible and her story and existence is glossed over as her brothers take vengeance for her defilement by the Prince of Schechem.

'The Red Tent' tells Dinah's story - and that of her mothers Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah - through painstaking historical details that must have taken a lot of research on the author's part. We learn about the segregation of women during their moon blood, how the history of families is passed down through the stories of mothers told to their daughters, and how women worshipped matriarchal goddesses who aided them in birth, life and death. The novel tells of womanhood as a treasure and how the old ways honoured woman as the wellspring of life, finding no embarrassment in menstruation and indeed honouring it the way we are in awe of the full moon today.

It shows that traditions and family histories and genealogy were the realm of the woman, and I must question that if this was so how did ancient men remember their histories and stories? Diamant answers this question:

"The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men who had no way of knowing." [3]

The novel is also a contrast between woman and man: the former are shown to have a deep sense of duty, respect for history and life, an innate civility and kindness, and also a generosity of person; the latter are shown to be violent and possessive, lustful and prideful, and always aspiring to have more.

The women seem pleased to be part of family life, to fulfil their duties well and learn from each other. However, the novel does raise the question - via Dinah's experiences - whether this is all by choice or because of the patriarchal time in which they lived.

The novel has brought an interesting perspective to biblical stories, their basis in men's written history and the complete omission of women's beliefs or perspectives. Women in the bible are often reduced to trade items, objects to be avenged or condemned, or even examples of femininity and thus examples of what men should aspire not to be.

Though the novel has a historical basis, much still rings true today. While a girl was considered a woman once she menstruated, girls are in most parts of the world not legally marriageable until at least 18 years of age. However, in some parts of the world, girls even younger than menstrual age are given in marriage to men much older than them. Many times the marriage is of benefit to the girl's father in some way, making the girl nothing more than chattel; other times it also depends on the family's state in poverty and insecurity, the overall culture of patriarchy, the institution of gender inequality, and sometimes traditions.

'The Red Tent' is written with an amazing insight into womanhood and a deep respect of humankind and religious origins. The research that went into such a deep novel is beyond reproach and has aided Diamant in creating a world that is rich in detail and utterly believable.

Further Reading:

About Child Marriage
From Eve the Temptress to Mary Magdalene the Prostitute: The Strange Truth About Biblical Women

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