The Red Tent begins with a star studded biblical cast unfolding the courtship of Laban's daughters Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah with Jacob, son of Abraham. This is where we are first introduced to the red tent, a sacred and sequestered space for women during their monthly menses, pregnancies, and illnesses. It is here, behind the folds of the red tent, that we learn of ancient women and their lives, their struggles and hardships, their joys and accomplishments, their secrets and stories, and their sisterhood.
At first, the narrative bounces from the voices of Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. We journey with them through their marriages to Jacob and the birth of twelve sons between the four of them until finally Dinah, daughter of Leah, is born. Loved and cherished by all four of the wives, Dinah is practically wished into existence through their shared desire to have a daughter "to keep their memories alive.” Eventually Dinah's voice takes over the narrative, and it is through her eyes that we travel to distant lands, learn the practices of cunning midwives, fall in love for the first time, share in her loss and betrayal, and in her triumphs and joys.
It's hard to put into words exactly how much I love this book. A reclamation tale focusing on the voices of women whom we never get to hear enough from in their primary context (or should I say text?), The Red Tent is spellbinding - I simply couldn't put it down. I was entranced by Diamant's fictional portrayal of these women's lives and the details that made them real: the woven herbs in the hems of their clothes to be used for medicine and spice, their knowledge of women's bodies, their traditions and rituals; it was a mental sensory overload and I'm seriously contemplating picking it right back up and rereading it all over again.
If you didn't happen to take a that super practical (but super fun and interesting!) Bible as Lit. course during college, here are a couple interesting factoids from the bible that Diamant fictionalized, expanded upon, or gave voice to:
1. Interestingly, Dinah is the only of Jacob's daughters mentioned by name in the bible, though others are referred to in Gen 34:21. She's also the focus of Diamant's text, following her life after she runs away from her family after her brothers commit their murderous betrayal against her lover and husband, Prince Shechem.
2. In the bible, Dinah's tale is very brief, and referred to as the rape of Dinah. But in The Red Tent, Diamant paints a different picture: love at first sight and a passionate courtship sabotaged and destroyed by her jealous brothers Simeon and Levi.
3. Simeon and Levi are portrayed as avenging their sister in the bible by slaying Prince Shechem and the people of his city for dishonoring Dinah. Diamant gives a more insidious perspective - motivated through jealousy and pragmatism (they couldn't have a princess for a sister, that would rank her above them), Simeon and Levi manipulate their father Jacob into forcing Shechem's father, King Hamor, into mandating that all of his male subjects had to be circumcised as a bride price for Dinah's hand in marriage. It was after the men, including the Prince and the King, underwent this demand that the corrupt brothers slipped into the city and killed every man and boy, and took their wives and daughters for their own.
4. We don't hear from Dinah again after her brief appearance in Genesis, but Diamant gives her a full life, a second life even, in Egypt, where she bears the son of her slain lover, and spends the rest of her days gaining notoriety as a cunning midwife, finds love for the second time, and even reconciles with an old figure from her childhood and another figure from the bible - her brother Joseph.