Monday, January 23, 2006

The Red Tent 

Just finished reading an intriguing book, Anita Diamant's The Red Tent. It is a fictionalized account of the life and times of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob by Leah of whom the Bible has relativley little to say, and what it does say is pretty shocking. Read Genesis 34 for Dinah's biblical story. What Diamant sets out to do, however, is to put more flesh on the story of Dinah than the Bible does itself, and consequently, more flesh on the stories of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Rebecca. The MO is "well, if women had written this story, it might have looked something like this..." I enjoy Biblical reimaginings; as I said earlier, I really liked Buechner's The Son of Laughter, which is a reimagining of the story of Jacob. It might be fascinating one day to read these two stories side by side and compare them. I really like reading what creative and intelligent minds come up with for telling stories about characters for whom there is relatively little definitive knowledge. It is perhaps a very difficult task. One thing confused me about Diamant's story though. What we do know of Dinah (and Leah and Rachel) is recorded in Genesis. And it is not much. So, theoretically, you have whole lives to play with literarily and only a few proscribed scenes. Diamant partially does away with those, however. For some examples: Rachel stands up to and boldly tells Laban she stole his gods; Dinah wasn't raped at all, but her brothers declared she was because they were angry she was in the bed and arms of the Shechemite prince; Joseph doesn't truly reconcile with his brothers. So I was perplexed. Why change the few parts of the story that we do ostensibly know about? Granted, Diamant's version is a compelling reading (and the whole book is extraordinarily well-written), but it was just fascinating to me to see these "changes". Now, Frank could tell us all more about Dinah and rape narratives than we ever cared to know, and so maybe I'm off base here, but the rape of Dinah is a pretty important story in the Jacobite narratives. This retelling of it amplifies the horror of the bride-price and the murders and turns the sons of Jacob from caring, avenging (if misguided) brothers, to murderous, evil, conniving, and deceptive schemers (which, given the beginning of the Joseph cycle in the Bible, isn't entirely a misnomer). But, in the great tradition of midrash, we can chalk it up to the asking of a "what if..." question.

All in all though, The Red Tent is an excellent novel. I think, especially for men, it reveals a side of the lives of females that we don't often really see, historically. Though its purpose is to tell the stories of women, it does not do so at the expense of the integrity of men, as some of these sorts of books might do. Diamant does not villify all males - Shalem (to an extent), Hamor, Benia, Joseph (to an extent), Jacob (to an extent), Judah, and Esau are all noble persons in the book. Nor does it turn all females into angels. The view of Rebecca is fasinating! Leah and Rachel both are far from sainthood. Dinah herself admits to not being able to forgive. And Re-nefer is downright mean. The book simply views men through women's eyes, and as we all might suspect, that looks quite different. The last scene is rather a tear-jerker, too, which is an impressive accomplishment for an author in this day and age of movies. So, I'd recommend it for your reading pleasure; it reads fast, is well written as I've said, and tells a good story.



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