I've been meaning to read Anita Diamant's The Red Tent
since I discovered midrash
: the practice of engaging scripture by retelling its stories to answer particular questions.
In this case, the question might be: “Is my story (a woman's story) important?” This novel explores the world of the Biblical patriarchs through the eyes of Jacob's only daughter Dinah (see Genesis 34). I'm not sure how historically accurate it is, but it meshes with other books I've read (for example, last year's The Source
Through Dinah, Diamant explores the culture and relationships of the wives and mothers and daughters in the camp. She weaves compelling fabric from threads she spins out of scripture (Lamech's household gods, the divide between city men and herdsmen, Yahweh speaking), research (who those household gods might have been, what their worship means to the women, the signifigance of the red—the menstrual—tent to those who inhabit it once a month), and her own imagination (Rebecca as a kind of high priestess, what might have happened to Dinah after the disaster in the city).
It's kind of obvious to call this book “feminist.” It's broader than that: Dinah's world is intensely tribal, familial and violent, and it has things to say about all of those. The tribalism struck me most when the wives of Jacob and of Esau compete over whose manner of cooking is “right.” They strive with each other, afraid of being judged unworthy.
The sexuality in this book might make some readers uncomfortable. There is only one graphic scene, which is not actual sex, but a ritual pertaining to a young woman's fertility. But sex is part of life for these people, something that can be perverted or beautiful, but is always there. It's something that creates new life—even if carrying that life sometimes kills the mother. (Now that I think of it, the graphic birthing scenes might make a higher percentage of readers squirm!)
I loved this book. It left me feeling I'd seen something precious: Diamant's vision of the bond of sisterhood. Whatever our disagreements, our loves, or our place in society, there's something that binds women together if we let it, if we make a place for it in our lives--as these women claim the red tent, every month turning separation into a place of refuge. Books like this one encourage me to seek out such sisterhood in our modern age, within our split cultures and between our divided hearts.