Anita Diamant, |
The Red Tent
(St. Martin's Press, 1998)
First there were four, and they were Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, the daughters of Laban.
Then came Jacob, a weary and mysterious traveler, from a far distant land. On spying Rachel at the well he was entranced, and she became his heart's desire. But she was far too young to marry and so Jacob had to wait, with patience and in servitude, in the house of Laban.
But Laban was not satisfied to see only his youngest marry and charged, as Rachel's bride price, the wedding of his other daughters as well. And so Jacob married Leah, and for his concubines took Bilhah and Zilpah, until Rachel was nearly too old to marry, and finally she was won.
This is the story the Bible tells, and this much we know to be so. But what of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah? Little is mentioned, except a curious incident, where she appears to have been raped at the temple in the city of Shechem.
This interpretation, which seems to be the accepted version, I find questionable. This is what the Bible actually has to say on the matter: "When Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her. And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the maiden and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, 'Get me this maiden for my wife.'"
However you choose to interpret this passage, the result is inarguable. The incident caused Dinah's brothers to seek revenge for the defiling of their sister, and ended with every male in Shechem dead. Brief though the mention of Dinah may be, her role in events of the time was dramatic.
Using this as a starting point, Anita Diamant has created a story of a life so enchanting, so believable, as to cast a question upon the true events, both before and after the one recorded incident. In a style that echoes the formality of the Bible and yet is conversational in a way to appeal to modern readers, Diamant winds her tale of loyalties, betrayals and redemption.
Dinah is raised in the world of women. From infancy, in the Red Tent with her mother and aunts, waiting out their menses and not allowed any work during this time, she learns the stories and rituals of the ancients, always passed down through the women. This is the center of life in the small clan that has grown around Jacob and his family. In the Red Tent, decisions are made, bonds are forged and babies are born. Under the tutelage of her beautiful and skilled Aunt Rachel, who serves as the clan's midwife, Dinah learns the art of birth.
When Jacob decides to move the clan back to his birth lands, Dinah begins not just a physical journey, but also one of intellect and spirit. From the encounter with Esau, Jacob's long-estranged brother, to the story of what really happened in the temple, readers cannot help but be pulled in to her moving story. Dinah must forge a role for herself in a world that does not take easily to a strong-minded woman, especially a foreigner with powerful skills. The grace with which she does this, despite overwhelming obstacles, makes her one of the most appealing characters in recent literature.
There is a great deal more written in the Bible concerning all the characters in the Red Tent. For the purposes of familiarity with the history, I have included here such detail as I think sufficient for a basic understanding of the novel itself. It can be enjoyed just as well without this information, but I found that with a small amount of research the story became even more vital.
Diamant has previously published several non-fiction books on contemporary Jewish life, including Choosing a Jewish Life (Schocken Books, 1998) and Living a Jewish Life (Harper Resource, 1996). This initial foray into fiction is a promising beginning for a very talented writer.
I'd be interested to know why Dinah's story in particular caught Diamant's attention. To take such a small bit of information and turn it into an entire novel is a significant challenge. Of course, with so little fact to adhere to, Diamant can take great liberties. Either way, the tale is wonderful and engrossing whether or not you have previous familiarity with the biblical stories upon which it is based.