If you want to write a certain genre, you’ve got to read all you can in that genre, at least 100 titles, says Heather Sellers in Chapter by Chapter. So, I googled lists of best historical fiction and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on most of them.
It’s the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, given only a chapter in Genesis 34. It’s a confusing account, since Shechem, son of Hamor, apparently rapes Dinah (no consent given?) but then takes her into his home, wanting to marry her. He is so desperate for her hand in marriage he agrees to Simeon and Levi’s deceitful condition that he and all the men of the city be circumcised. While Shechem and his men are recovering from the procedure, Simeon and Levi descend upon the town and slaughter every male and take the women, children, livestock and everything else for themselves. When confronted by their father Jacob about the trouble this has brought upon him, they justify their violence by saying “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
And that’s all we know about Dinah. So how did Anita Diamant write 352 pages in her voice?
Anita Diamant fills in the gaps by asking a number of questions about the Bible story.
It’s a story in three parts that reaches its apex in the middle of the novel. First, we hear about the stories of Dinah’s mother and aunts: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. The Bible doesn’t say that they are all daughters of Laban, but Diamant says they are all daughters through his wives or concubines. And they all end up bearing children to one man, Jacob, who is Laban’s nephew. Complicated, eh? However difficult this makes their relationships to each other, once a month at the new moon, the four women retreat for three days into the Red Tent where they take time out during their periods to rest.
In the second part, Dinah tells her own story, her upbringing as a lone daughter among brothers and the special place this gives her in the hearts of the four wives of Jacob. After the family leaves Laban’s lands to return to Canaan, encountering Esau along the way, Dinah is sent to spend time with her grandmother, Rebecca, depicted as a powerful oracle. Shortly after her return, Dinah enters womanhood and the polytheistic rituals surrounding her first menstruation are imagined in detail. One of the key symbols that arises at this time is the Egyptian goddess Tawaret, a “water-horse” or hippopotamus figure that Dinah dreams of and that is connected with her fascination with water, also foreshadowing her future role as a midwife and her life in Egypt, since Tawaret is a nurturing goddess of motherhood.
In the story, Rachel is a gifted midwife and Dinah becomes her apprentice. It is in this capacity that the two of them first visit Hamor & Shechem’s city. When they are summoned to help Hamor’s young concubine deliver her first child, Dinah meets Shechem. It’s love at first sight and Shechem’s Egyptian mother helps get the two of them into bed, even before the wedding contract has been arranged. For those of us who have read the Biblical story, we know it’s not going to end well. The midpoint of the novel is a stomach-churning description of the slaughter of the house of Hamor. Dinah awakens to the sight of her lover’s slashed throat and is carried off by her brothers back to Jacob’s tents. This is where the Bible story ends and I always assumed that she lived like another rape victim, Tamar, in her brother’s house, “a desolate woman”.
But in part three, Anita Diamant envisions a different fate for Dinah, who returns to Shechem’s mother and escapes with her by boat to Egypt. On the sea voyage, Dinah discovers she is pregnant, and during her difficult delivery, she herself coaches the attending midwife on how to proceed. When Dinah’s son leaves home at age seven to begin his schooling, her friendship with the midwife Meryt opens opportunities for her to work as a midwife again, earning her some measure of independence. It’s also not the end of the road for Dinah’s love life. She meets a kind and honourable wood worker named Benia and after many years they marry. The story comes full circle when Dinah’s son Ra-Mose ends up working for Joseph, though when he learns that his uncles killed his father, he tries to attack Joseph. There is closure for Dinah when Joseph makes her accompany him on his last trip north to see his dying father, because even though she tries to remain unrecognized, she is glad to see her family from a distance after a lifetime of separation.
It’s a truly epic story, starting before Dinah’s birth and going even beyond her death.
I was reading this masterpiece not only for the pleasure of a well-written story but to guide and inspire my own writing of historical fiction. I love the vivid, but simple descriptions of daily life in a shepherding community. I love how Anita Diamant saw the religious experience of the women as more pagan than monotheistic, though I am not sure it was such a sharp dichotomy, more of a both-and situation. I love her poetic language, that somehow manages to sound ancient as well. I love how she followed the Biblical timeline and structured the story into three parts. I love the celebration of womanhood, sisterhood, menstruation, pregnancy and child-bearing symbolized by the Red Tent.
I’m not so sure I love the apparent contradictions to the Biblical story. In The Red Tent, Leah’s eyes weren’t weak, they were just two different colours. Laban only said he couldn’t find the teraphim— he just didn’t want to admit that Rachel had menstruated on them. Little things like that. And my other big question is about sex. If you’re writing for adults, do you have to have sex scenes? Native Speaker does, In the Midst of Winter does, The Red Tent is the most graphic of them all. But An Artist of the Floating World doesn’t, nor does Pride and Prejudice (arguably the most romantic, notwithstanding). Let me know in the comments what you think about this.
So for my own novel, I’ve learned
Have you read The Red Tent? What did you love or not about it?
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!