I read The Red Tent (1997) as a first year in high school and I didn’t understand any of it.
The novel by Anita Diamant is a feminist biblical retelling of the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. In a male patriarchal narrative, all we know of Dinah is that she is raped and her brothers decide to welcome in her rapist’s family into their own tribe, circumcise them and then kill them.
We do not hear Dinah’s version of the story.
And then there is The Red Tent, first a novel and now a miniseries (2014).
In this novel, Dinah is the first person narrator. She tells not only her story, but begins even earlier: telling the stories of her mothers Leah (her birth mother), as well as Leah’s three sisters, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah who all marry Jacob.
This is a novel celebrating and exploring the voices of women. As Dinah says in the first chapter of book:
If you want to know about any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.
As a reader, you do listen. Diamant does a phenomenal job at taking biblical women and crafting real and complicated people. Leah and Rachel are so distinct and so beautifully flawed in their reality as women, I almost feel I could meet them today, despite the vast cultural divides that separate their world from ours.
The most interesting cultural element is the theme of the incoming patriarchy. The goddesses Dinah’s mothers worship are goddesses which value women and hold menstrual blood as sacred, not profane. To bleed is a woman’s entry into adulthood and it is a time of joy. The red tent is where women go when they are menstruating, where they relax and tell stories and live as women unencumbered by the lives and world of the men around them.
Reading the novel in 2015, there is a definite cis understanding of womanhood and I hope a new edition of the would include an introduction by Diamant, welcoming transwomen into the fold of womanhood the novel creates. I can only hope.
My one other critique is that while the female characters are fleshed out and envisioned with subtleties and skill, the male characters, especially Dinah’s lovers, are flat and bland. Oddly enough for novel rich in cultural nuance, sexual love is almost fairy tale like with love-at-first-sight syndrome. And while I believe Dinah deserves happiness, I struggle to believe her love because of how uncomplicated it is.
Still, I would recommend this novel. I would also recommend having a basic background on the original biblical story so you do not read blind as I did entering this text as a fourteen-year-old. But with a bit of background and an open mind to believe in the power of women’s stories and hearing women’s stories, the novel is a great read.