The Red Tent by Anita Diamant


You would think that, given my ambivalance for all things religious, and for Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend just a couple of weeks ago (review here), that I would have similarly ambivalent feelings about The Red Tent. It is, after all, another fictionalized retelling of a bible story. However, I am pleased to say that that was not the case. The Red Tent is about as different as if can possibly be from Lamb while still also being a retelling of a religious story. While Lamb falls firmly into the category of 'comedy,' The Red Tent is more of a serious coming-of-age story from the point of view of a female character that only gets a couple of sentences in the original story that she appears in: Dinah.

What The Red Tent reminds me of more than anything is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur through the eyes of the women in the story. The Red Tent has the same comforting sense of a story handed down, of the old kinds of storytelling, women's stories handed down from mother to daughter without ever being written down. It feels like all the stories that history missed out on when it only wrote down men's stories. And I love that about it. There's so much that we don't learn in history class about the women of history, about the work they did, about the stories they told each other, about the things they believed. I'm hungry for those stories, for the women centric stories that all too often get left out. And while this is a fictionalized account, it still feels true in a sense; it feels like a stand in for so many other untold stories.

I also really liked that despite the fact that Dinah's mothers were basically sold to Jacob, while they were first their father's property and then Jacob's (to a matter of degree--two of them were literally slaves given as dowries for the other two) this book shows us more of their agency than it does of their slavery and servitude. While they may be property, they don't act like it. This story gives us many instances of the wives influencing their husband for their own ends, or going behind his back when they don't think that he's made the right decision; it also doesn't show us a single instance where one of the women believes for even a second that they are lesser than the men around them. There's a lot of pregnancy and birth in this book, and the Diamant dwells on it, on the horrors of it, and the way that the community of women supports each other through that time. She dwells on their bravery, their capability, their strength in bringing life into the world. And on the other hand of the spectrum, Zilpah, one of the wives, has a single child and decides that it's not for her--and her choice is not seen as any less valid than that of Leah, who has..a lot. All of the women have a knowledge of herbs that can be used for birth control and don't hesitate to use them at times when they don't want children, or even just don't want children right now. While I certainly wouldn't want to live in such a divided society, this is certainly one of the most palatable portrayals of something like this that I've seen, and it's entirely because of the agency that Dinah and her mothers have throughout the entire book, both over their lives, and their own bodies.

So, I guess you could say I liked this story. I enjoyed reading it much more than I expected I would, and would recommend it to pretty much everyone. I don't think anyone's reading life suffers from having more women with agency in it.

4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.