Tag Archives: historical fiction

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.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4989.The_Red_Tent

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!  😉

Night Fall: A Shocking Tale of Terrorism

Image courtesy Google Images

What do conspiracy theories, eyewitness accounts, and well-developed reoccurring characters all have in common? For those of you who read my blog often, you’re probably thinking this is another post about Dan Brown, which is a good guess, but actually this time I want to talk about the book Night Fall.

Nelson Demille (photo courtesy Google Images)

Night Fall, by Nelson Demille, is a fictional mystery novel centered around the events of the plane crash of Flight TWA 800 off the coast of New York. The plane crash did occur on July 17, 1996. The facts of the event were detected by over 200 eyewitness accounts, as well as CIA animated simulations, and Airline experts on how the crash occurred. The problem surrounding this news media frenzy is that the CIA generated module for how the plane crashed (declared technical malfunction due to an exploding gas tank) varied greatly from what 200 eyewitnesses saw (a streaming light coming up from the water, such as that of a missile). Therein, we have our conflict. There are at least six different theories regarding what happened to Flight TWA 800 ranging from a covered up friendly fire drill training gone wrong to explosive gas bubbles.   As a reader, you’ll follow along all six options as Detective John Corey unearths them.

National Geographic News Coverage on the Crash Simulation Theory:

The protagonist, John Corey, is a former New York Policeman, recently transferred to the FBI co-branch of detectives for the Anti-Terrorist Task Force. His wife is Kate Mayfield, an FBI agent and former lawyer. He couldn’t be more of a ticking time-bomb and she’s all about the books. Now, Kate was one of the interviewers for the eyewitnesses of the accident, and every year, on that mournful day, Kate pays her respect to the families who lost loved ones on that plane. A few choice words about the theories surrounding this particular plane crash, and her maverick of a husband is now sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.

This book will shock you. It’s both a gripping tale, and a surreal look at the possibilities and inaccuracies that lie within our government’s anti-terrorist actions. I will admit, when my book club first picked this title out and we all asked “what’s it about?” The one word answer “terrorism” didn’t exactly get us all jumping up and down. But I would absolutely recommend this book.

First, the writing is impeccable. Night Fall is the third book Demille uses Detective John Corey in, though the books do not read in a sequential order, he’s certainly found a niche his readers like in Corey’s snarky backhanded compliments and repetition for getting into trouble for all the right reasons. If you were ever in a situation where you needed a good detective, you’d want John Corey on your side. He has a knack of making you like and dislike all the characters he runs into, which in my opinion makes them all very real. Demille writes in a style that is fast paced and first person, so you learn along with his character.

His book is based on the drastic theories, news coverage, and eyewitness reports of what occurred on Flight TWA 800 that caused the death of 230 passengers and crew members.  It makes the suspense of this novel all the more gripping, because though you’re reading a work of fiction, this book is widely researched and makes no clear accusations of what really happened, yet challenges the original government ruling of the accidental exploding gas tank.  Demille has a history of leaving the endings of his novels unclear or open for interpretation, and Night Fall is no exception.  I will say, if you’re someone who likes to skip ahead and read the ending of a book before you get there, DON’T.  You do not want to read ahead in this book, and you will understand where he goes with the book as you go through, so don’t ruin it by cheating!

Ultimately, what I love about a book is whether it fosters discussion, and Night Fall does this.  With a topic such as government cover-ups and terrorism, it’s difficult not to have an opinion.  But it’s not a one-sided argument.  There is no clear right or wrong answer that any persons involved in this investigation could have provided, at least in my opinion.  It may be simple to look back and say, they should have done this, but we are also all on a heightened awareness and sensitivity regarding terrorism now.  Where can we possibly draw the line of what the public needs to know and what is necessary to keep private for internal operations?

More Info/Resources:

The Flight 800 Investigation

A Conspiracy Theory: What Really Happened

15 Years Later:  The Mysteries of Flight TWA 800

Have any of you read Night Fall?  Do you remember the crash of Flight TWA 800?  What’s your opinion on what really happened on July 17, 1996?  How does the discussion about terrorism differ from then to now?  What changes do you see?

A Witchy Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

     I’m having such fun with this book club I joined.  Our book for June was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

Connie, a graduate student trying to survive her oral exams, inherits (of sorts) a dusty, dirty old house that belonged to her grandmother.  She moves to the house in the summer to clean it up and sell it, but what Connie doesn’t know is that this house will unlock a secret in history dating all the way back to the Salem Witch Trials.

The book is a fascinating read, imagined by the author through her own dissertation work at Boston University.  Every day she would walk her dog on the trails between Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts, the cities the book takes place in.  Howe states the characters in her book are not autobiographical, but they are well developed nonetheless, and she herself is descended from two Salem Witch historical figures:  Elizabeth Proctor, who survived, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not.  Spanning the Witch Trial days and the decades that followed in conjunction with present day, she webs together a cunning woman of the 1600’s with a 1990’s stressed out student!

Last summer, I vacationed in Boston, MA, and took a day trip to Salem with my boyfriend.  If any of you have upcoming vacations that way, plan to stay overnight!  All the good graveyard and witch tours happen at night!  As it was, we weren’t in on that loop, so we had to catch our train back to Boston, but we did spend a full day in Salem.  Salem is a beautiful, seaport town with a mix of past and present in its streets.  The locals you’ll meet are just as diverse covering the full spectrum of love/hate for the tourists that flock to its city, especially at Halloween.  The city offers such tourist and historical attractions like the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Pirate Museum.  Plus, almost all its shops offer psychic readings, tarot readings, palm readings, and a vast array of magical potions and herbs if it interests you.

We toured the Salem Witch Museum.  The main room is set up like a theater, and you sit around the edges with its “stages” encircling you.  The lights go up on various scenes to reveal still models in period dress, each depicting a moment during the Salem Witch Trials as the audio narrates.  The role of Tituba in the Salem Witch Trials is not widely known, but she was a servant in Reverend Parris’ house.  A slave from Barbados, Tituba would entertain the children with magic tricks and scary stories.  Her name was the first name cried out from the “afflicted” girls.  After that, many more women were accused of the craft.  The most shameful accusation was that of Rebecca Nurse, a respected, God-fearing, elder member of the community.  It is suspected her plea of guilty came more-so out of fear and misunderstanding than anything else.  Historians say she was questioned twice at trial, but she was old and hard of hearing, causing her to nod in reply than speak up.  She was one of the 19 people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.

The hangings weren’t the only punishments given during during this time of suspicion and fear.  A man named Giles Corey was actually pressed to death, with logs and boulders stacked upon him as a torture method to make him name additional suspicious townspeople.  His last words are reported to have been, “More weight.”

In addition to the 20 deaths following the trials, many of the accused “witches” spent months in prison awaiting a suitable judge to arrive to port.  And even those that weren’t hanged suffered a life in prison.  At the time, if you were imprisoned, it was up to your family to pay for your imprisonment and upkeep.  If you could not pay, which many of the lower class families could not, you rotted in jail for a lifetime to pay off your debt.

Many of the leading figures of the Salem Witch Trials make an appearance in Howe’s book, giving it a rich historical setting, and new perspective on its haunting past.  The book is full of several mother-daughter relationships, providing great discussion at book clubs, if you’re looking for a new read.  And since the main topic is uncovering Deliverance’s physick book, also called a spell book, receipt book, Book of Shadows, you can count on a little magic sneaking its way in.

As for Howe’s writing style, it was said by several book club members that the beginning is a little slow.  I agree, at times the description of Connie’s actions or internal thoughts dragged on, but this is absolutely a book to stick with, unanimously liked by each member, especially the ending!  It brought up a lot of interesting conversation about character development, gender then and now, how our perception of the world is based on the world we grow up in, and of course, witches!  Do you believe in witchcraft?  How has the term witch changed over time?

What do you think?  Do you believe in magic, or is it all a bunch of hocus pocus?

Also, what’s a great next read I should tell my book club about?

Pope Joan, Rome’s Female Champion

Did you know that in the 800 AD’s we had a female pope?!  I had no idea either!

Published as fiction, author Donna Woolfolk Cross spent seven years crafting a legend into a full life novel.  So who was Pope Joan?  There is enough historical fact leftover to prove she did indeed exist, and depending on which version of the Liber pontificalis, or Book of the Popes, you read, you may just find out that she was in fact the pope.  Dressing in men’s clothing, Joan defied the times and became educated.  Spending several years as a monk and priest, she also became a great healer.  Eventually her skill and altruism towards the people elected her to the thrown of St. Peter.

Largely criticized as a mere myth, historians have battled The Vatican for years.  The Catholic church admits that documents from the time period Joan would have reigned were destroyed, but also claim that Pope Joan never existed in the first place.  There is, however, evidence proving that other women of the time spent their lives in disguise as a man in order to achieve greater education and life opportunities.

How is this possible you ask?  Well, that’s where fiction starts to blur the lines.  Most people in the 800’s were illiterate, so the number of records from that time, even about the male popes, is shoddy at best.  Cross has researched the time period, right down to the discovery of blue cheese, and narrated for us the imaginary, though possible, life of our story’s heroine.

After a terrible attack by Norsemen, Joan takes her brother’s clothes and dons them to escape.  Her interests are always in conflict, born of a canon father and saxon mother, she is learned of God, and also of her mother’s “heathen” gods and goddesses.  Cross depicts our lady as the utmost champion of debate, a woman who can argue her way out of anything.  Hmm, that sounds about right.

If you’re interested in checking out more of her legend, the article The Lady Was a Pope from the US News, Mysteries of History is an interesting one.  And, on author Donna Woolfolk Cross’ site, she has a nice summary in her FAQ’s.

I highly recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction.  It reads very much like The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, minus the mystery solver professor replaced with an early feminist in disguise!  Alright!  Make sure you add Pope Joan to your reading list!

What books are currently on the top of your recommending list?  I always love new titles.  And I know many of you have resolved to read so many books a year, how’s it going?  I’m happy to report my goal of one per month is turning into two a month!  Yay!  Happy reading everyone!

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