Sunday, November 14, 2010
The Red Tent
I've heard a lot of women praise The Red Tent, and I have to admit that the cover picture had me wondering why the woman was posing in this manner. After reading the book, one can only speculate. Historical fiction fans would enjoy this book, but the plot didn't really grab me on this one. I know it's a book club favorite, but I wouldn't want to read this for a book club.
What I did appreciate in the book, however, was the personal narrative piece. I like how women are portrayed as the story tellers, the keepers of memory who pass on the memories of their families, and especially their mothers. Such this the case with our protagonist Dinah (pronounced Dee-na) who opens the novel with a retelling of her mothers' lives--Leah (pronounced Lay-uh), Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. All four sisters are married to her father Jacob in the order of their birth.
Through Dinah's storytelling, she recounts her family history. She explains the strained history between Leah and Rachel--their rivalry. Leah is wed first, which angers Rachel, yet Rachel has more beauty and draws a stronger reaction from Jacob. However, Leah is very fortunate in child birth. She gives Jacob many, many sons while it takes Rachel over ten years to conceive one son. Ziplah and Bilhah also conceive, but they are considered more as lesser servants than equals to the other two wives. Among the four women, Jacob has many, many sons.
Dinah, born much later, is the only girl born to Jacob. It is a blessing when she is born since now the story of the family and the women can be carried on. Dinah discusses the relationships she has with her brothers and her mothers. She is given privileges earlier than most girls because her mothers love her so much and are so eager to turn her to womanhood.
The title of the book, the red tent, reveals to a special tent in their camps dedicated to menstruating women or women in child birth (hence the tent being "red" with blood). Men were not allowed in this tent. It is in this tent where the women bond the strongest and Dinah is told many of these family secrets that she passes onto the reader.
Certain scenes in the novel (or within the red tent) were quite graphic. Dinah tells harrowing details of child birth, animal fornication, first sexual encounters, and a first-menstruation ritual to turn a girl into a woman. I don't consider myself a prude by any means, but I felt borderline awkward reading those scenes and envisioning them actually occurring in the past.
Anyway, moving on to more adventurous and engaging scenes, the reader moves to Dinah's maturation. She enters the city (which is told to be cruel and bad), yet Dinah is curious. While in the city, she meets a young man who turns out to be the prince. He asks for her to move in with him, and she does. Before marriage, they have sex, and now Dinah cannot become a good bride with a good bride price for any other man. The positive thing is that Dinah and the prince are in love. The king goes to Jacob with a fair bride price, yet Jacob and his sons believe that Dinah has been stolen and raped. When the king returns a second time with more money, Jacob insults him by refusing the money and instead offering that all of the men within the palace become circumcised. The prince agrees, for he will do anything to be with Dinah.
The dark or "red" scene within the novel (SPOILER COMING...) is when Dinah discovers her soon-to-be-husband slashed to death in their bed at the hand of her two brothers. Everyone else in their path was murdered. They take Dinah back to their tents where she is too angry to live there and returns to the city. The prince's mother is kind enough to let her stay with them, despite the havoc caused by her brothers, and she bears the prince's son. The prince's mother raises the son as her own and names him despite Dinah's wishes. Dinah is more like a servant to her son than a mother, though the son does know that Dinah is his birth mother and that his father is deceased.
As Dinah ages in the city, she becomes a well-respected midwife who helps women deliver babies. Women from all around call to her to help them give birth. This gains Dinah respect in the city. Her son ages and travels which makes Dinah sad. Later on in her life, she is approached by a man who eventually seeks her as his bride after two years. Dinah, feeling that she could never love again after the prince, discovers that she can. Years later, she discovers that her younger brother Joseph is now the prime minister of Egypt. Dinah, her husband, and Joseph return to Jacob's tents to see their father die. The story of Dinah is known throughout the tents among the women, but the brothers have soon forgotten her, and they do not recognize her upon her arrival. It is at these tents that the reader learns what happens to the other characters in the family to give closure to their stories.
As a reader, I was very angry at the part where Dinah's happiness is stripped from her by her family. I don't know if I can fully blame the men for destroying and ruining parts of Dinah's life. Perhaps they truly felt that she was stolen and raped and needed to do what they did in order to restore power and honor to the family name. Maybe they were truly protecting her. It also seemed that they were aware of Dinah's happiness (since Bilhah came to visit Dinah in the city and spread the news throughout the tents), so why would they deny her that happiness? It was very frustrating, and it made me angry to see such violence for terrible reasons. To ruin someone's life over manly pride is disgusting, and it was hard to read through.
End of spoiler...
What I did not know, because I am not an avidly religious person, is that this novel is a retelling of a minor character in the Bible. Anita Diamant, the author, wrote this on her website on this very point:
"The Red Tent retells the story of Dinah, which is found in the Biblical book of Genesis, Chapter 34. This episode, usually known as the 'Rape of Dinah' has been a difficult passage for bible readers for centuries because of the murderous behavior of Jacob's sons. In Genesis, Dinah does not say a single word; what happens to her is recounted and characterized as rape by her brothers. In my retelling of the story, Dinah finds her voice. The Red Tent is told entirely from her perspective and the point of view of the women around her."
I think it's a pretty interesting idea to take a very small story and blow it up into something bigger in order to promote more understanding or closure. Who knows how far or close this story comes to the truth with its embellishment, but it brings up conversation between those who truly care about the Bible and its teachings.
Was it the most intriguing and exciting book I've ever read? No. Was it thought-provoking? Yes. I often found myself comparing rituals and customs from the past to now, and it's interesting to see which customs have stuck and which ones are considered silly. I would make faces at rituals or customs that seem odd to me, but I bet there are a lot of things that my culture does that would seem odd to other cultures. It's just interesting to see how people lived a long time ago and think if you could handle such a life. It's interesting to see the transformation.
In any event, those interested in historical fiction and religion would be deeply invested in this novel. I find it would connect more with a female audience, but it certainly is not only for women. The strong bonds of women are certainly a strong thread that is woven throughout this novel, yet I don't see why men couldn't be fascinated with these tellings, thoughts, and feelings the same way that a woman would.
To me, it was a mediocre read, yet here I am blogging about it. So, that must say something.
What do you think of The Red Tent?