Review of “The Red Tent” (SPOILERS)

From my Goodsreads review. Beware the spoilers even though this isn’t exactly a new book! If you haven’t read it yet you absolutely must!

One of the things that makes this story so beautiful and simultaneously so absolutely heartbreaking. Spoilers: I cried both times I have read this book. The story is moving, the characters so real and the connections between them reminding me of the connections between myself and my mother and her mother and her mother, and on down the line. The beauty of the prose is spot on both in illuminating the characters, their beliefs, their motivations, and the time period in which they lived, and in imbuing the story with its emotionally charged power. In reading this novel I cannot help but think of the knowledge that has been lost to us — not only in terms of historical knowledge, such as the records that have been lost or destroyed or the stories that were never recorded in the first place, but also in terms of familial knowledge, such as knowledge of the lives of our foremothers and forefathers, and what they learned through their experiences, how those experiences shaped them, and how their shapes in turn shaped us.

To be fair these are things that have always been important to me. I’ve always wanted to know more about my genealogy and family history, to understand where I came from. Because of this, the themes of this novel are deeply moving to me. This and the sheer poetic beauty of the prose are not the only reasons I love this novel, however.

Firstly, it is the story of a woman as told by men reclaimed.In positioning Dinah not only as the central character in her narrative, Anita Diamant effectively allows Dinah to reclaim the story that was told about her — a story which is brief and without any particular depth or emotional nuance, a story in which Dinah is herself robbed of autonomy by all acting forces. The Red Tent returns autonomy to Dinah not only by giving her an emotionally and spiritually compelling backstory interwoven with the stories of her mothers, but (and most obviously) by positioning her not as the “defiled” victim of rape she is positioned as in the Bible, but by positioning her as a young woman who exercises the power of choice in going not only willingly, but eagerly, into the bed of Shalem (Shechem in the original Biblical verses).

The return of Dinah’s autonomy and therefore her personhood does not end there. She also chooses to leave the camp of her father and brothers after her lovers’ murder, but she doesn’t only leave: she lays down curses upon the men in her family for the murder of Shalem, and in this narrative is depicted having incredible power in her curses. Thus she leaves her father’s family to the ruin of the curses they brought upon themselves not only through their violence, but through their total disregard of her wishes, her personhood, and her autonomy.

Because this is essentially a novel hinging upon the humanization of a woman who has long been considered an object, both without autonomy or personhood (first raped then hauled off by her brothers like a lamb, the only semblance of concern for her well-being serving as little more than an excuse for violence) it is, then, necessarily a book about the historical lives of women. It is no secret that women have long been barred from the historical record, with notable exceptions gaining inclusion typically for their unique wickedness or having done something above-and-beyond for a cause (since we’re speaking Biblically, we can cite examples such as Jezebel, or on the other hand Esther). The lives of women are typically marginalized in a historical record that focuses on the deeds of men — the inventions of men, the wars of men, the rise and fall of men. In seeking to illuminate an alternate version of Dinah’s story in which she is both humanized and given the power of choice, Diamant illuminates the lives of women of the time.

Dinah’s story is inseparable from the stories of her mothers, for those are the stories from which she was born. Her mothers’ stories shaped her as much as the experiences of her own life shaped her, and her mothers’ traditions associated with the red tent prove to be representative of a dying tradition, which brings me to my second point: this is not only the story of women reclaiming their role in history, reclaiming their humanity and their autonomy. It is also the story of the passing of traditions out of time and out of mind.

At the heart of the story is the desire of the women in Dinah’s family to preserve the traditions of their mothers. This is, of course, most clearly highlighted in the figure of Rebecca, Jacob’s own mother, who curses and disavows her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter for not adhering to the spiritual traditions around menstruation which were handed down by her mother. Even Rebecca eventually lets go of the hope to find someone to fill her place as the Oracle at Mamre, and with it the hope that the traditions of her mothers will survive. Dinah’s mother, Leah, represents a softer approach to these traditions: when Jacob takes their idols (teraphim) and destroys them and hides the remains in a secret place, she is relatively at peace with it because they had not experienced any ill-luck or curse from having stolen the idols to begin with or kept them hidden in a basket all those years. The gods, she implies, are with them regardless of whether or not they have the physical representations of the gods. On the other hand, when the last idol is destroyed Leah’s younger sister, Zilpah, has to be restrained so she doesn’t hurt herself (more than she already has) because the destruction of the idols, and with them the destruction of the polytheistic traditions they represent, does her personal, psychological, and spiritual harm.

Ultimately Dinah, too, leaves behind the traditions of her mothers when she leaves behind the land of her mothers. This isn’t uncommon or unheard of in this era of polytheism, as the gods were often considered to be localized — they were seen to be attached to the land and didn’t travel with their adherents. On the other hand, in Dinah herself the idea that the gods are not bound by space or time is represented in her relationship with the Egyptian goddess Taweret, which pre-dates her travel to Egypt. Dinah’s journey shows the moving on from traditions that are no longer applicable to her, while she continues to hold those traditions in reverence for the role they played in her development as a woman. The implication seems to further be that, simply because a tradition is lost to us does not mean that its value or importance is necessarily lost, and I would argue that even Dinah’s parting line to the reader hold to this idea: “Wherever you walk, I go with you.” Much like the lost traditions still carry their value, our forgotten foremothers and forefathers still carry value in the role they played in bringing us to be.

These are the primary reasons that this book moves me to tears when I read it: from the perspective of a woman, and reflecting on all of the women’s history that has been lost or has lost its meaning as it was written by men with the bias of the men at the time, and from the perspective of a polytheist who can’t help but mourn the plethora of religious history and knowledge that was lost to the long and often violent spread of Christianity. Every time I learn of a new period in history in which the religious texts and/or objects of native peoples were destroyed in the name of conversion, my heart aches. When I read this book, my heart aches in a similar way, there is a two-pronged nature to that ache: the aspect of women’s history, and the aspect of religious repression.

Nonetheless, this ache is not without hope, which is why I can say that this book is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Dinah lives past her trauma to make a good and happy life in a new land and with new people. The world goes on despite the horrendous things that people sometimes do to each other. Not all knowledge is lost, despite the efforts of some to eradicate it (a copy of the Popol Vuh survived in secret despite the efforts of Christian invaders to destroy the religious relics of Mesoamerica; archaeologists unearth new temples, texts, and artifacts every day that shed light on lost traditions and anthropologists find new meanings in these findings, helping us to understand the history and significance of them). Despite the fact that women were relegated to back-seat roles the vast majority of the time, many of them overlooked as nothing more than a name and a vessel through which sons were born, there are people alive today who seek to give meaning back to the lives of historical women, and find ways to give them honor and stories despite their literal history being lost.

These are on the immediately obvious layers of meaning in this book. I’m sure I could write a dozen essays on the different meanings that can be divined from this splendidly crafted narrative. It is a moving story, one clearly created with great care and consideration. As I’ve already said, it’s one of the most moving, beautiful, and heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read.

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