reviews

Book review: The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

Oh, this book. A Baptist preacher’s daughter lent it to me early in high school, and it was not just formative — it changed my goddamn life.

It spurred my first awakening as a feminist. It was an exhilarating and enriching form of rebellion, as entrenched as I still was in a conservative, fundamentalist Baptist environment. I grew up knowing the story of Jacob’s wives and children with the rest of the Old Testament tales, but in case you haven’t, here’s a refresher on Dinah, the narrator of The Red Tent. There’s not much to it, in the biblical canon.

The Red Tent is, I firmly believe, the best piece of published Bible fanfic out there. And I will tell you why:

  • It fills the most important purpose of any retelling or fanfic: subversion. It takes a story told as holy scripture, and it tells the reader, that’s not the whole story. There’s a whole other side that men ignored or buried, and I am here to tell you that side.
  • It gives women a voice in a historical era where they had little to no voice, especially in the Hebrew texts. And the voices aren’t just created for Leah and Rachel, but for their slave handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah.
  • Yes, it is indulgent. It is shameless in seizing the tropes of sisterhood and ancient world mythology, in celebrating women’s power. That doesn’t mean it has no power, that it wasn’t exactly what I needed when I discovered it.

I don’t know if it’s a realistic representation of pre-historic culture (then again: Bible fanfic), but it feels real, the way the best-written books feel. The way Middle Earth feels real. Diamente describes how her characters make their meals, how they spend their times spinning and weaving wool from their flocks, and it feels believable.

Also, I wish my mother had fed me bread dipped in honey or sweet wine when I was upset or sick.

Then again, all the descriptions of childbirth with prehistoric medicine (herbs, mystical chanting, a lot of padding to staunch blood flow) was an effective antidote for any real wistfulness or romanticism of that time. The sisters’ mother, Ada, is described as an old woman with many aches and pains, until one day she doesn’t rise from her blankets — and I thought, yeah, she was probably 40.

As for considering all the gender and sex issues in the book — there’s so much to dig into. Starting with the notion that in this time period, there is no such thing as a teenager. No such thing as required schooling, be it elementary, junior, or high, which we often use to judge our level of outrage when learning about a young person engaging in sexual relations. Menstruation is the only tangible divider of children from women, so it’s sensible to use it as a rule for whether a woman is old enough to marry (I like the additional rule of “first blood, plus seven months” before marriage).

The strict gender roles are frustrating, yes. Zilpah was my favorite sister, as I identified with her lack of interest in sleeping with men.

Did I mention this book introduced me to so many things? The strongest example of sisterhood I’d ever encountered; the most positive representation, even celebration, of menstruation and womanhood; of sex and childbirth; and then darker things, including rape. Werenro’s whole story – that stayed with me.

Other lines that have stayed with me for over a decade:

[Bilhah’s mother] ran off one night when Bilhah was old enough to know she had been abandoned.

*

Leah’s vision was perfect. …my mother’s eyes were not weak, or sick, or rheumy. The truth is, her eyes made others weak and most people looked away rather than face them — one blue as lapis, the other green as Egyptian grass.

*

He put his hands into my hair until they were tangled in knots and it took us long moments to free him. “I love these shackles,” he said, when he could not free himself, and he grew large and our coupling was exquisitely slow.

Also, all of Dinah’s curses. How they seized and subverted Jacob’s new name of Israel. How they claimed credit for all of the terrible canonical things that followed, including Reuben/Bilhah, and the selling of Joseph into slavery. And, as Dinah learns many years later, the additional very dark take on Joseph’s years in Potiphar’s service.

Dinah’s curses are worth quoting here in full, as they stole my breath, empowered me, obsessed me at fourteen and fifteen, exactly when I needed to read them:

“Jacob,” I cried with the voice of a wounded animal. “Jacob,” I howled, summoning him by name, as though I were the father and he the wayward child.

Jacob emerged from his tent, trembling. Later he claimed that he had no knowledge of what had been done in his name. He blamed Simon and Levi and turned his back on them. But I saw full understanding in his clouded eyes as he stood before me. I saw his guilt before he had time to deny it.

“Jacob, your sons have done murder,” I said, in a voice I did not recognize as my own. “You have lied and connived, and your sons have murdered righteous men, striking them down in weakness of your own invention. You have despoiled the bodies of the dead and plundered their burying places, so their shadows will haunt you forever. You and your sons have raised up a generation of widows and orphans who will never forgive you.

“Jacob,” I said, in a voice that echoed like thunder, “Jacob,” I hissed, in the voice of the serpent who sheds life and still lives, “Jacob,” I howled, and the moon vanished.

“Jacob shall never know peace again. He will lose what he treasures and repudiate those he should embrace. He will never again find rest, and his prayers will not find the favor of his father’s god.

“Jacob knows my words are true. Look at me, for I wear the blood of the righteous men of Shechem. Their blood stains your hands and your head, and you will never be clean again.

“You are unclean and you are cursed,” I said, spitting into the face of the man who had been my father. Then I turned my back upon him, and he was dead to me.

I cursed them all. With the smell of my husband’s blood still in my nostrils, I named them each and called forth the power of every god and every goddess, every demon and every torment, to destroy and devour them: the sons of my mother Leah, and the son of my mother Rachel, and the sons of my mother Zilpah, and the son of my mother Bilhah. The blood of Shalem was embedded beneath my fingernails, and there was no pity in my heart for any of them.

“The sons of Jacob are vipers,” I said to my cowering brothers. “They are putrid as the worms that feed on carrion. The sons of Jacob will each suffer in his turn, and turn the suffering upon their father.”

I remember agreeing with my friend, who loaned me the book, that the first half was better than the second half. I still think it’s true, just for how marvelous it is to read about the four sisters, their differences and love and relationships with Jacob and their own sons.

But I have some new appreciation for the second half and Dinah’s years in Egypt, the sad lonely years before she ventured out with Meryt and regained the title of midwife, finding her purpose there. I also liked the simplicity of her relationship with Benia, as implausible as their silent beginning seems even now.

And yes, this book still moved me. Repeatedly I teared up, had to make an effort not to weep harder, during all of the scenes describing Dinah’s connections with her four mothers after they died. Those kinds of scenes brushing into the afterlife always get to me, though.

In summary: five stars, forever and ever.

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