Trish and Sophia Talk Books: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Trish and Sophia Talk Books
An occasional collaboration in which mom Trish and twenty-something medieval studies major daughter Sophia read and discuss books! 

Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

St. Martin’s Paperback (1997)

Our Quick Take: Straight up, this is the story of a life. We follow Dinah, a minor Biblical character, as she recounts her mothers’ and her own stories. Overall, a bit bland.


Trish: This book was not on my radar at all! But my daughter Sophia, who has taken some scholarly Old Testament history classes for her uni degree, can really get behind a feminist take on history. When we decided to do another buddy read we chose The Red Tent. It’s old school. My copy was a mass-market paperback from the library, and it was published 26 years ago. Sophia picked up a newer trade paperback from our local Little Free Library.

But it’s a timeless story. I found this book a mixed reading experience. On one hand, I quite liked that we could just simply follow one woman’s story and learn about her way of life and traditions. On the other, it felt like a slightly rote, monotonous telling of Dinah’s life that didn’t pull me in.

I lacked the context of the various belief systems, which led to some confusion on my part, and I would have appreciated some information woven into the story about various gods each culture worshipped. I would have also welcomed some background on the cultural factions. I think this lack of depth led to the very superficial feel of the book. I've done some research since finishing the book, and I've put some of what I found out at the end of this column. 

Sophia, what were your thoughts about the book?

Sophia: I had high hopes for this book that unfortunately weren’t met! I thought it was much too plot focused and none of the characters really had any depth to them. I didn’t really care about any characters, and the ending was completely unsatisfying. We had initially meant to read the book within a week, but I wasn’t enjoying it and it ended up taking me two weeks to complete! And I can usually finish a book within a week.

Trish: I agree, especially with the ending. I did appreciate the concept of the Red Tent, where women had to reside during menstruation and childbirth. It could be seen as a construct of rejection and shame, but Diamant clearly emphasised the female bonding that happened there. It was more like a refuge, or a sanctuary for women. I liked the focus on women’s power being situated in menstruation, pregnancy, birth and the family. Childbirth was perilous, as it is in many parts of the world today no doubt. But in the end, to be sure, Diamant’s vision was of a deeply patriarchal society. This is an imagining, as I doubt there’s much truly known about society at this time in history.

What did you think of it from a feminist perspective?

Sophia: This is the one aspect of the book I enjoyed! I hear about this book constantly within feminist spaces, and I did think the author did a good job in that regard. Throughout the book, different female rituals and gatherings were described, and the writing placed an emphasis on connections between women, which I found to be very powerful. (SPOILER) I also enjoyed when all the women from throughout her life greeted her when she died at the end of the book.

Trish: Dinah’s life was rich in many ways, but such great tragedy befell her that I was amazed at how resilient she was. That said, there were years that she retreated into her household and didn’t communicate with almost anyone, and it was clear that she felt massive anxiety. I’d have liked to understand more of her inner life, or to see some other characters’ stories from their points of view. It would have been fascinating, and I'm sorry the book lacked the depth of storytelling that some historical fiction brings.

Sophia: Although it was a bit of a slog, I liked how the premise for the book’s narrative was framed in the prologue:
“And now you come to me–women with hands and feet as soft as a queen’s, with more cooking pots than you need, so safe in childbed and so free with your tongues. You come hungry for the story that was lost. You crave words to fill the great silence that swallowed me, and my mothers, and my grandmothers before them.

I wish I had more to tell of my grandmothers. It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing.”
The book is a chronicle of Dinah’s memories. But still, it didn’t do it for me.

Trish: Overall, I’m glad we read this. From a historical re-telling lens and it was good to journey with Dinah, but I wouldn’t necessarily seek out more from this author. Thanks for reading along with me, Sophia!


Addendum from Trish:

Reading The Red Tent raised several questions for me. I felt as though I didn’t have enough historical context to have a deeper understanding of the story. So I did a little digging on Wikipedia and various internet pages. Be warned, there is no scholarly research going on here!

The various belief systems of Laban’s daughters (Leah and her sisters, Dinah’s mothers) was new to me. I’ve come to learn that people of that time worshipped household gods, or teraphim. They also worshipped Inanna, an ancient goddess of love, war and fertility. She is apparently alluded to in the Hebrew Bible. El is the eventual God of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic monotheistic religions, and worshipped by Jacob’s side of the family, Caananites. In the book, then, there is a distinct division between a more feminine divinity and the masculine, patriarchal El.

How true to history is the story? Diamant, who is a journalist turned novelist, has noted that there is no documented use of a “red tent” in this historical period. The book is based on just a few lines in Genesis. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, goes out to the country-side and is either raped or seduced by Shechem (written as the character Shalem in The Red Tent), a Hivite prince. Apparently he wants to marry her, and a bride-price is set by Jacob's family: circumcision for Shechem and all males in the city. However, while they were recuperating, her brothers Simeon and Levi underhandedly killed all of the men. To the casual reader, there appears to be significant controversy about when and how this story in Genesis was actually written. The events may be set around 1800 BCE but the writing of the presumed oral traditions could have been done between the 7th to the 1st century BCE. Probably, its writing was a process over time, and the truth of the account is largely unknown.