I loved The Red Tent so much I read a second time immediately upon finishing it.
The story is the intimate tale of woman living in early Biblical times. Told in the voice of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, Diamant wove the tale around a much storied family from the Book of Genesis. The fictional account fleshes out the people, women and men, who are often little more than names in the Biblical narrative. The strongest thread within the story is the memory of women passed down by the bonds of family, knowledge, and love.
The very details Genesis lacks are what make The Red Tent extraordinary. I could nearly taste the olives, smell sun warmed skin, feel sand under my feet. I could imagine myself among the women in the red tent welcoming the new moon and celebrating the cycles of our bodies. In these close quarters rivalries are put aside. Traditions and wisdom are transmitted to the next generation while men are not around.
I shared joy and sorrow over the birth stories of each child begotten to Jacob with details to which only the woman attending the birth would be privy. I’ve always have trouble reading the great lists of genealogy in Genesis. I could not help thinking if women had set down the history destined to become the Bible, no child would have been listed with name alone without some remembrance of their humanity.
While the novel illuminates the lives of three generations of Abraham’s descendants, even those with no background in Jeudo-Christian traditions would find much in The Red Tent to enthrall. I was taken in prologue by this:
“If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and listen carefully.”
Even into the dust of history, our collective mothers have made womanhood what it is today. It is a proud heritage we share across cultural divides.
Modern feminism would have us remember our foremothers as weak and subjugated, pitiable creatures with little more place in culture than the animals their men domesticated. I do not dispute the fact of lesser status and many injustices existing in nearly every civilization throughout history. However, limiting our understanding of ancient women to that is disrespectful and narrow minded.
The Red Tent helps us remember the strength it took to thrive in the conditions in which they lived. In the Western world, it is unthinkable to imagine bring babies into the world knowing only a few would likely survive birth and childhood. They were aware how dangerous childbearing was back then. Each woman lived with the knowledge she risked her life to be a mother. Even the most skilled midwife had few tools at her disposal; herbs for medication, a knife, and her experienced hands.
A woman like Leah, Jacob’s first wife and mother of many, would continue to endure these risks. Without these brave mothers, humanity could have easily died out by the gift of reason that sets our species apart. I do not buy the idea that they had looser emotional ties to their children than we do now that the death of a child is relatively rare. No, these children were precious and loved, or they would not have been conceived at such a high cost. Choosing to bear children was the ultimate gift of love passed down to modern mankind.
In the book, it is very clear that the men tend the goats and sheep, then sit around telling tall tales and drinking beer. The women run the household, process the wool, tend the garden, harvest and process olives, grow grapes for wine, and brew beer, plus the traditional childcare and cooking. Still think working woman are a modern concept?
They did the doctoring even beyond midwifery. Diamant writes about the women caring for Jacob after he wrestles with a stranger in the dessert. He limped for the rest of his days, but he survived his injuries and walked thanks to the women of his household. With knowledge of herbs medicinal properties to rival any pharmaceutical scientist, complains of pain or upset stomach were made to the elder women of the family. They may not have had modern diagnostic techniques like at home paternity test, but their cures for aliments were the basis of medicine before men began studying healing arts.
I encourage you to read The Red Tent, then share it with your mother, daughter, sister, or friend. Nothing I can say can describe the experience, but I know you will not be disappointed.
Modified from original post written on May 4, 2008.