Long before I knew about Goodreads and before I’d even figured out how to place holds at the library (it’s hard to remember those dark days), people kept recommending the same book. Not just people, actually. Women. Women I knew at church, women in my book club, friends who knew I liked to read were all recommending The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Like so many recommendations, I fully intended to read the book, but it never quite made it to the top of my list at any given time. When a friend picked The Red Tent for book club last month, however, I was thrilled to finally see what all the fuss was about.
The Red Tent tells an imagined version of the biblical story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter. The Old Testament doesn’t tell us much her; Dinah is only mentioned in a handful of verses in the book of Genesis. Diamant used a combination of historical assumptions and tradition to lay out the tale of Dinah, her mother Leah, and her aunts Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. (In the Bible, Zilpah and Bilhah are handmaidens to Leah and Rachel. In this book, they are half sisters as well.) The title of the book and much of the first 2/3 of the story center around the idea of the red tent: the separate tent where the women spent their days of purification each month and after the birth of each baby.
I read the book with my copy of Genesis nearby. It was fascinating to refer back to the few verses and see how Diamant used the scarce details to shape the story. My only complaint with the book is how some of the men were portrayed. Most of the men in the book were either too good or too sleazy to be believable. Dinah’s brother Joseph was petty and greedy. Joseph has always been one of my favorite Old Testament prophets, so I would have appreciated a redeeming quality or two.
I have three sisters, but they are all more than 10 years older than I am. It wasn’t until college that I appreciated what it would have been like to grow up with sisters at home. Reading this book was something like that. At its core, it’s a book about women: jealousy, friendship, companionship, and strength. Reading it made me miss my mom and my sisters more than I expected. The book opens with Dinah telling the reader about her role as the only girl to carry on the stories of her mothers and aunts. “The more a daughter knows about the details of her mother’s life – without flinching or whining – the stronger the daughter.” The book also had me considering a career in midwifery until a few days later when my mom asked me to wrap a deep cut on her arm and I had to leave the room at the sight.