An Annotated Story of Dinah

Reviewing Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent

One of my favorite weekend activities is finding garage sales, especially ones advertising books.  It is simply amazing how many wonderful books one can acquire for just a dollar or two each by taking a few minutes to select them from boxes, shelves, and mats in people’s driveways.  There have been a few garage sales over the years that dramatically filled my shelves; one particular estate sale comes to mind in which Ashley and I could barely carry the boxes full of fifty-cent-each books.

Then, there are the other garage sales.

I think everyone who attends garage sales at some time or another has found themselves in this position: you drive up to the sale, and you’re the only ones there.  The offerings can be charitably described as “another man’s treasure,” but the eager owners are just so thrilled that you are there, and so eager that you find something you like.  It is at the same time awkward and sad, and as a buyer, I feel so much pressure to find something, anything, to buy, so we can move along while sparing the owners’ feelings.  Ashley and I have actually worked out a secret code for these situations, amounting to an S.O.S.;  if one of us starts whistling Tom’s Diner, it’s time to hit the road.

It was at just such a sale that I found Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  The garage sale ad had listed “lots of books,” which always piques my interest.  I understand that “lots” is not a particularly specific quantitative description, but it does put an idea in my head of boxes or shelves full of literature, with a few choice gems hiding, just waiting to be plucked out and added to my collection.  To this particular garage sale proprietor, “lots” meant four books.  Four.  We were there early, so it wasn’t that they had been sold already.  He literally had four books, and one of those was a decades-old school textbook.

As I always do when perusing any quantity, or lack thereof, of books, I started reading the back covers for a sense of whether the book would be interesting.  The Red Tent purported to be a different take on part of the bible story, fleshing out the story of Dinah, who is mentioned only briefly in the old testament’s “founding fathers” narrative (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc.).  Frankly, my first impression was not great, and I was preparing to put the book back, when the unmistakable whistled notes of Suzanne Vega’s only hit reached my ears.  I had two choices; pay a dollar for this book of questionable merit, or see the disappointed face of this homeowner as his only two prospects left empty-handed.

I’ve got to tell you, that was a very well-spent dollar.

The character of Dinah grows up in a world of women, which is represented by the red tent.  In biblical times, the red tent was where women gathered and lived during their monthly cycles, and when giving birth.  It was a place forbidden to men, and was at once a place of camaraderie, pain,  sisterhood, and storytelling.  The opening chapters narrate events that take place before Dinah is even born, but are described as the oral history she has been told about her family and its place in the world.

The time period of the novel starts with Jacob coming to Laban for a bride.  This is the famous biblical vignette in which he wants to marry Rachael, pays a bride price of a year’s labor, and then gets duped at the wedding and marries Leah instead.  The bible presents this as Laban’s trickery, but in The Red Tent it is the women driving the events, and a conspiracy among the women leads to this deception.

That device brings to mind The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  In both stories, the authors have taken a fairly well-known legend and have re-narrated it from the female perspective.  Not only are the women the main characters in each story, but the famous events that take place and have been traditionally ascribed to men are shown to be directed by the women.

Dinah’s life story begins with her birth.  She is the only daughter of Leah, and only surviving daughter of Jacob.  She grows up with the siblings who will later become the tribes of Israel.  Diamant richly weaves details about the everyday life of women into her story, and the result is both compelling and believable.

The major biblical event involving Dinah, the massacre of her new husband’s village by her angry brothers, leads to a break between her and her family.  She leaves for Egypt in the company of her mother-in-law, and becomes an accomplished midwife.  Much later, she is surprised to find that the new chief adviser to the pharaoh is none other than her brother, Joseph.  With him, she travels back to Canaan to visit her father on his deathbed, where she learns that her story was not forgotten.

The best part of this novel by far is the period of time before the massacre.  Diamant has worked backwards from the one tragedy we know about Dinah and has created a richly-textured biography that is full of pain, joy, loss, pride, accomplishment, and satisfaction.  The latter part of the story, while not bad, does include a few Dickensian coincidences that help the author advance the plot; this comes across as somewhat sloppy.  However, it does not diminish the overall merit of the novel.

It was a bargain at a dollar, and worth far more.


Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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