Being a fan of historical fiction, when The Red Tent was published I was driven to read it and potentially learn something about the characters of the Bible in BC-era. Biblical historical fiction is a challenging undertaking for any author, in my personal experience, mainly because very little is known about that era. Stories were passed down orally, and any information about people have been warped over time. This is especially true for females during this period of time, due to the importance of males and history relying only upon males and their deeds (even though there wouldn’t be males without females, let’s be honest here).
The Red Tent is a biography of the female Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob in the Old Testament. The first part of the novel begins of how Jacob came to be known to his wives. Yes, you read that correctly, Diamant says that Jacob took four sisters as his wives. Jacob is well-known in Biblical history for he was one of the founders of the Israelites. He had a dozen sons, yet he also had daughters, one of which was Dinah. Dinah is mentioned briefly in the Bible in Genesis 34: “Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her.” Diamant took this brief mentioning and the stories that surround Dinah and produced a biography (some consider an autobiography) of Dinah and her life.
The most epic story of Dinah’s life is how she met her husband and what befell the family of Jacob following that. Legend says (as well as Diaman’ts novel) that Dinah fell in love with Shecham, son of Hamor, and Hamor in turn asked Jacob for a bride-price for Dinah. Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, did not believe Hamor’s bride-price was the best so they secretly came into the palace one night and killed Hamor and Shecham and stole Dinah away. After that, the house of Jacob was forever shamed. From what I could gather from my readings other than Diamant’s novel, is that there is a lot of history that is foretold in this story concerning Dinah’s two brothers. Moreover, what happens after the brothers kill Hamor and Shechem is up for debate. I believe Diamant takes the higher road and allows Dinah to move on and meet another man who treats her well and lives a fulfilling life, even returning to her father Jacob and forgiving him for his sons’ deeds.
Clearly, the life of Dinah is up for debate and will probably never been truly known, unfortunately. Diamant paints a vivid picture of the life and happenings of people back in those days, especially concerning women and how they interacted. I found this portion of the novel fascinating. The meals that were prepared, how the women all had to escape into a red tent when their periods came (hence the novel title), as well as midwifery (Dinah’s supposed gift). I’ve never before read a novel concerning this portion of time, and I have watched a few documentaries about Biblical characters, but most after the birth of Christ, not way before. This story and the characters definitely shed some light on Judaism, the Old Testament, and even some of the current day struggles of Israel.
Even though I will have to say I learned a lot from this novel, I was not the biggest fan. It took me a great chunk of time to read, mainly because the beginning was really slow. Diamant really took her time to develop Jacob’s wives and their characteristics and personalities, but when it came to big life events of the main character, Dinah, it was as if Diamant rushed through to get to the next chapter of the book. The novel flows in chunks of years to days. One page can be the development of a few years, another is the development of one day, but there really is no rhyme or reason. Honestly, the part where Simeon and Levi kill every one I had to reread, because all of a sudden Diamant says how each of Jacob’s wives dies in turmoil and remorse. Literally, my thought process was: “Wait, what did I miss out on?” Dinah says she’s dead, then she’s not, then she is, then she feels dead but is alive. It was like literary whiplash; that’s my largest complaint.
In the end, I’m not surprised that something on my list of books that are NOT classics is filled with ones that I end up learning something about but not liking. It tends to be those novels in which I’m forced to read that I end up thinking “now I know why they are on this list!” and those that I hear great things about I consider “seriously, this did not deserve that much hype.” Oh well, at least I learned something historical and religious. That’s all I can really say, right?