Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

First book of the new year, and it was lovely and brilliant.

In my quest, quite a while back, for good Biblical fiction, I picked this book up, and unfortunately just got around to reading it. Now that I've read it, I can say I wish I'd read it earlier. It's just a good, well written book. Is it historically accurate in all respects? No, I'd say not. But, dear people, it's *fiction* which means that you are (as the author) licensed to make things up. So. Bearing that in mind, it's an excellent book.

The author takes a character who isn't even in the Bible long enough to be called a 'minor' character, maybe she'd be a 'footnote', an 'extra', if we were going to label people from the Bible that way, and weaves a 321 page novel around her.

The narrator, the 'main character' of the novel is Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah from the Bible. Remember her? Maybe, maybe not. She's not in the Bible nearly as much as her brothers, who are *many*. You'll remember them, there were twelve....ten of them chucked Joseph into a well? That whole debacle of brotherly love? Well, assuming you don't recall who Dinah is, go back and read Genesis 34. In my Bible the chapter is given the title 'The Violation of Dinah'.

The author creates her story from this chapter (and she says she was aided by midrash in her storytelling, but gives no references, so I can't tell you what she got from where. Fiction, though, so remember that and give her space.). The novel runs from before Dinah's birth to her death, and the story of her 'violation' is not the central part of the novel. It's about her whole life, though that period is, of course, covered. However, in Mrs. Diamant's story, it was not rape, and her brothers committed terrible crimes when they descended on the city and murdered and raped and stole. (In fact, Dinah mentions, many years after the fact, that her father's name, Jacob, had become synonymous with 'liar' because of the slaughter, and that's why he had changed his name to Isra'el.) But all that comes much later in the story.

We start (before Dinah is born), with the story of how her father and mothers met and married. It follows the Biblical story, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well, offering his service to Laban for her hand, and being 'tricked' into marrying Leah first, instead. However, the details (wherein the devil resides) are a bit changed. I like the fact that Leah is not treated as the 'ugly', undesirable sister, but rather, beautiful herself (though exceptionally tall, apparently), and the 'weakness in her eyes', was not that she couldn't see, but that they were two different colors (one blue, one green) which made most people look away from her (her eyes causing *them* to be weak, see?). She becomes infatuated with Jacob when he meets her eyes and doesn't flinch away. So, roll on to the wedding, through the manipulation of Zilpah (who is a sister to Leah and Rachel through one of Laban's slaves, as is Bilhah), Rachel is afraid of lying with Jacob, and Leah takes pity on her, even though she's convinced that Jacob will have to know it's Leah and reject her, and thus 'ruin' her. Now, in the story, Leah is *much* taller than Rachel, and bigger, more muscular. Veil or no veil, Jacob knew it wasn't Rachel he was marrying. But, in this story, Jacob had fallen for *both* the sisters, and married Leah willingly. They hatch the scheme, together, during their 'honeymoon' of seven days, for Jacob to come out of the tent and accuse Laban of tricking him, and demand Zilpah as dowry for Leah, and to be given Rachel as his wife for seven more months of labor. (Which, since Laban is portrayed as a drunk, he winds up agreeing to, because *he* was too drunk to realize the wrong daughter was getting married...)
Anyway. It's interesting, Rachel is portrayed as jealous of Leah and Jacob's relationship. Because, even though she's the pretty one, the one he wanted to marry, Leah and Jacob have the better relationship. They laugh together, they enjoy one another, whereas Rachel views her nights with Jacob as a duty, and Leah a joy. And when Leah keeps having children, and Rachel keeps miscarrying...well. Dinah does mention, many times, that her mother Leah and her aunt-mother Rachel never speak directly to each other - they speak through their handmaids, the other wives, Bilhah and Zilpah, or through other women. And this, as far as she knows, goes on until Rachel's death. They live together, they work together, and when needed help one another, but they can't quite seem to forgive one another for each having a part of Jacob.

I like this much better than the previous book I read that covered the relationship between Jacob and Rachel and Leah, because Leah is not portrayed as a victim, as the poor, suffering, wronged girl. She lives a good life, in this book - her husband loves her, differently than he loves Rachel, or Bilhah, or even Zilpah, but he *does* love them all. It doesn't make him perfect, because he *does* screw up, but then, so do all of them. It's a good book - the characters are realistic. They're *human*, and you can almost picture this as being 'between the lines' of the Biblical stories.

Now - if you don't want to read about the continued practice of goddess worship in Biblical figures (not Jacob, but his wives), don't read the book. If hints about certain characters performing acts of grievous wrong to sheep bother you (Laban, nameless boys), don't read the book. Or squint when it comes up, because it's brief and then gone. And if subtle hints about the sexual preferences of a major Biblical figure (Joseph) bother you, look away towards the end of the book. But, even given all of that, I loved this book, and would recommend it to anyone who can keep the distinction between history and historical fiction straight.


  1. Ive been wanting to read this for a long time. Its suppose to be I wish we still got to rest in tents one a month LOL

  2. I love this book! I have it and have probably read it 4 times. Its a good read when I've been studying my dry academic books about the same time period. The portrayal of Leah as not being a victims is fascinating and has always stuck with me when I read the story in the Torah now.

  3. Oh, this seems really good. I'll have to look for it. Thanks for the review. Glad you started the year off with an interesting read.

  4. I read this a few years ago. I liked it lot.

    what did you think of kelley armstrong?

  5. I love this book! I read it a few years ago and think of it often when I read certain biblical scripture.

  6. LK,

    You *need* to read this book. I was rating it on Librarything and very disappointed that there are only 5 stars I can give!

    The red tent thing is something that needs to be revived!

  7. Stacy,

    I can understand why. I know it's going to be one I enjoy coming back to later on. Yeah, the portrayal of Leah as a victim always made me so *sad* for her, like she was just some helpless puppet. This Leah is going to be *my* Leah, from now on. :)

  8. Susanne,

    Very, very good. I cannot stress that enough. I really think this is one of those books everyone should read. It's just that good.

  9. Slice,

    I like Kelley Armstrong quite a bit. I've got all of her 'Women of the Otherworld' books, and I buy her in hardcover, which is a mark of dedication from me. :) The only reason 'Frostbitten' didn't make my top three was that (to be perfectly honest), I prefer Paige and Lucas' stories to Elena and Clay. It's a personal preference, that's all. If we extended it to top five? Frostbitten would have been on it.

  10. R.A.,

    To date, this is my favorite Biblical fiction. Not that I've read a whole lot, mind you, but this is just a wonderful book.

  11. have you tried kim harrison? I read every witch way but dead. I bought it in canada when I waswandering around in Ottawa.

  12. Hah. I actually love Ms. Harrison's Rachel Morgan series as well. You really have to start at the beginning (Dead Witch Walking) though, and follow it if you're going to read it.


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