The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I reread The Red Tent this month for my Bras, Bibles, and Brew group, and I enjoyed it again the second time. (I first read it after it was published in the 1990s.)
What is most notable about this novel is that it was the first book to use the Jewish tradition of midrash to speculate on what might have happened in the family of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. So little is written about women in the bible, so Diamant imagined what might have really happened in that family and to Jacob's only daughter, Dinah (who does not get any spoken lines in the bible).
Many people get quite agitated about historical fiction that attempts to retell events that actually or supposedly happened. I remember people getting similarly worked up about the Da Vinci Code. People are worried that others do not understand that these books are fiction. Honestly, if people do not understand enough to realize that these are fictional accounts, we probably have more cause for concern.
In fact, in last month's meeting of Bras, Bibles, and Brew, one of the women (who loves children's literature) says that she only reads fantasy--she's not interested in "real stuff." However, then she also said she didn't like The Red Tent, because it didn't really happen the way Diamant dramatizes, and she's concerned that people will believe The Red Tent in lieu of the bible. Like the bible is a factual book? This makes no sense to me.
Diamant brings the bible to life for me in a way that the real thing just can't get anywhere near to. I can smell the animals grazing near the tents...and imagine the way women were treated as second-class citizens, not even worthy of introductions. I enjoyed rereading the stories of women's friendship and how they supported each other during menstruation, childbirth, and other life milestones. I felt heartbroken for Dinah when she had no female friends her own age as a child, and then her grandmother Rachel banishes her only friend (her cousin) because the proper rites had not been followed. I winced when I read that babies born with harelips (or cleft lips, which is what I had as a baby) were put to death.
The only criticism I have of this book--and it's a minor one I did not notice during the first reading--is the weird change of perspective at times. It's told in first person; however, a few times the narrator is omniscient and can describe events that are occurring without her knowledge.
I gave it five stars because of its first-of-its-kind (many other biblical retellings have followed) nature, and because of the way it went into deeper detail about the women in the bible. As someone who does not read the bible literally and is completely aware that so much is not written in the bible (take for example that the bible names only 188 women [many of whom do not get any dialogue], compared to thousands of men)...this book was a welcome read.