The Red Tent: A Review of the Retelling of Dinah’s Story

How’s everyone doing on their To Be Read Pile Challenge?  Whether you officially participated in Roof Beam Reader’s challenge or are just picking away at your own pile of books by the nightstand, tell me how you’re doing?  What books are you currently reading and what is left to complete by the end of the year?

I just finished reading two more books on my list, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and now The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  What’s left?

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave is next up!
  • and I have to finish Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – which I stopped halfway through…

The Red Tent

Anita Diamant’s book, The Red Tent, is beautiful and one I wish I’d read a long time ago.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that are about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood–the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers–Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah–the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through a hard-working youth, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Dinah’s story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past. Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling with a valuable achievement in modern fiction: a new view of biblical women’s society.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction.  I think writing it is a labor of love for the author.  You’re depicting someone’s life, trying to sound like them, make them whole – and all that takes great patience.  Imagine trying to know a character who lived in the time before Christ.

I was drawn to retell the biblical story of Dinah in large part because of her silence.  In Genesis 34, Dinah’s experience is described and characterized by the men in her family, who treat her as a rape victim, which in that historical setting meant that she was irredeemably ruined and degraded.  Because she does not say a word (and because of the extraordinary loving actions taken by her accused assailant), I found it easy to imagine an alternative telling to the story, in which Dinah is not a passive victim but a young woman who makes choices and acts on her own initiative.  Not only did I find it easy, I found it necessary.”

-Anita Diamant (September, 2007)

Growing up a Catholic School girl, our role models in the church were quiet, benevolent women who spent their days soothing others and baking bread.  Of course I think women who exemplify these behaviors are necessary to the humanity of our people, but it cannot be the whole story.

My childhood Bible – the cool one with the pictures in it – told the story of Dinah as a rape victim, an event which led to her humiliation and degradation within the community.  The story goes on to say that her brothers avenged their sister by ransacking and killing almost an entire town.  What Diamant did was give voice to Dinah, and an alternative thought process to the events which happened.

In Diamant’s version, Dinah falls in love with a man, is married even, to this man who is a noble and of great fortune.  It behooves Jacob’s family to separate with their daughter in this advantageous outcome, but it is Dinah’s brothers who fear power greater than their own and convince their father to ask for grotesquely large dowry payments and obscene actions of obedience .  Still not satisfied, the brothers unleash a silent killing spree through the village, leaving Dinah widowed, alone, and in mourning.

That’s really nothing new for Dinah’s brothers, think “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and you’ll recall the cruelties they also inflicted on their brother, Joseph.  Although he gets a lot more written about him in the Bible.  And subsequently a Broadway Musical, which I saw when I was younger, starring Donny Osmond. 

It took Diamant 4 years to write The Red Tent.  Much of her research was on living conditions, types of foods, etc. that would have grown, thereby creating a realistic world for Dinah and her mothers to live in.  Much of women’s history is lost from that time period because it was never written down.  A woman’s worth was portrayed in the bread she baked, the clothing she wore, and the children she gave birth to.

Over the years, The Red Tent has become a book of controversy.  With religious groups on both sides of the spectrum, its readers range from thinking it sacrilegious to a spectacular teaching tool.  The subjects in the book contain historically accurate depictions of plural marriage, religious beliefs, midwifery, famine, social class, genealogy, and gender divides.

I highly recommend this book.  If it’s not in your To Read Pile, add it!  It’s been described as a luminous read by more than one critic, and I think that’s a fitting depiction as the book does shed light on one woman’s story and what might have been.  This is a fantastic book for book clubs or to share with your female friends.  My own book club spent much time discussing the various advancements in medicine, cooking, etc. we’re thankful for after reading about the daily lives of biblical women.  We contemplated what worked and didn’t work in the marriages of these characters, and what it meant to have a woman from the Bible who was portrayed as strong and intelligent.

Since many of you are writers yourselves, I found this clip of the author sharing her best tips for writers too!

What do you think?  Have you read The Red Tent?  What did it mean to you to hear Dinah’s story told in such a different way?  Have any other books had a profound impact on you?

And what’s left in that TBR Pile of yours?  Inquiring minds are always looking for more titles!  😉

15 responses

  1. Thanks, Jess, for another great review! As you likely know, I was very sad that I had to miss the book club discussion on this lovely read – especially when I heard about how many people couldn’t make it in the end – but in any event, I, too, loved the book and would agree that it is one everyone should consider adding to their ‘to be read’ pile! For those folks who liked “The Red Tent”, I would also highly recommend “Mary called Magdalene” – another outstanding read! I think that for all of us who love historical based novels/fiction, it’s an appropriate (and very thought provoking) follow-up to “The Red Tent”.

    1. Ooh, I’ve heard of that one also. It’s been on my To Read pile for awhile.

      Wish you could’ve been at the discussion. See you for October’s!

  2. Hi, Jess! I read The Red Tent in my book club, as well, and it was definitely an eye-opener. The majority of the members in my book club are Catholic, so this book certainly set the stage for some interesting conversations regarding the role of women in the Church (but these conversations were not nearly as spirited as those sparked by our reading of “Pope Joan”. That is another one you should add to your list – very interesting, true or not). Anyway, I love historical fiction, and found this book to be a very intriguing and thought-provoking read. So glad to know that you enjoyed it!

    1. I read Pope Joan a year ago and loved it! I think that’s a fascinating take on a historical legend with a lot if controversy surrounding its validity. I hope it’s true!

  3. How fascinating that you read this book, Jess! My book club read it before I joined, and periodically the title comes up as one they hated. LOL. I do think it gave them a lot to talk about.

    However, what I really got out of your post is a severe case of jealousy–way worse than Joseph’s brothers. YOU SAW DONNY OSMOND?!!!! He was my childhood crush, big time. I know that makes me really old, but he’s not young either, even though he’s aged quite well. I would give my shoe wardrobe to see him sing in person!

    1. Lol. How am I not surprised you have the hots for Donny Osmond? Did you watch his talk show with Marie? I used to.

      Yah-Donny was a great Joseph!

      1. I watched a little of his talk show…but I’m way older than that! I watched the Donny and Marie variety show in my youth. I’m a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock-n-roll. (That will make sense to us old folks. LOL.)

        The boy can sing.

  4. Read the Red Tent along time ago and loved it. Just spent several weeks sitting in the hospital next to my Dad and got some serious reading done.

    Very favorite: The Light Between Oceans, ML Stedman
    Page Turner: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
    Lovely Imagery: The Orchardist, Amanda Copeland (warning: lovely imagery, but not light reading)
    Good reads: Unending Devotion, Jody Hedlund; Our Husband, Stephanie Bond; Where We Belong, Emily Griffin.

    There were others, but these are the best ones.

    1. Ooh Jane thanks for the book list! Most of those titles are in my pile already. The Light Between Oceans will be in my book club next year. I’m super pumped to read Gone Girl with Great New Books online book club in January. You should definitely chat with us over there for the conversation! And Jody’s new book is on my list too. Read all her others and bought those for my mom!

  5. I read THE RED TENT years ago. I think it is required reading for all Jewish girls. 🙂

    I loved the idea of someone taking ONE tiny passage from the Torah and creating an entire story from that one passage. THAT fascinated me. The book was, of course, beautiful… but the idea was intriguing, too.

    Favorite book of all time: Lord of the Flies. I think I mention it every day.

    1. Sucks to your ass-mar!

      That’s probably the most common LOTF quote I use in every day conversation. LOL.

      Agree with you on how fascinating the idea for the Red Tent is!

  6. By the way, LITTLE BEE is another one of my most favorite books. WHile you read it, think about the plotting that was involved. Your head will spin!

    1. I knew you liked this one! I will totally watch that plotting!

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