by Justine Johnston Hemmestad
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, is more than a book – it’s a time machine, as a truly good book is meant to be. The story takes the reader back to an era when to be remembered was life after death and serves as a metaphor for life within life, when stories were spoken and passed from person to person and family to family. The fiction of the story is tightly woven with historical facts, allowing for the reader to live in ancient Harran and surrounding Biblical lands, fully saturated in the lifestyle and customs of the time, not only physically, but psychologically as well. In this way, the storyline is given the freedom to prosper in imagination, for Story is so much more believable when anchored in verified (by archaeology) historical fact (the little things like type of cup used or what the tents are made of). Those pieces of information may seem to be on the surface insignificant, but they can open the door to another world and make the story itself engrossing. At times the precision of these details may prove monotonous and lengthy, but the historical value outweighs any distraction from Story for the true history-lover, and the historical details are so seamlessly interwoven with Story that it’s not too distracting.
As much as I was struck by the history integrated into the story, I also admired the use of metaphors and idioms of the time and place – such as specifying that the baby is ‘at the door’ when it’s ready to be born, as an example. Words transform present-day surroundings and breath truth into the action of the story as much as historical facts do. Personally, I love these double-meanings of the Bible and ancient times, as though the writer is trying to get away with saying something that may have very likely been restricted otherwise, and this book does these words justice many times over. Those ways of getting around restrictions with manners of speech with words are meant to touch the soul more than the ears. People spoke directly to the life within, and the book captures this. Lessons taught in this way serve to prime the mind, since the recipient of the inherited story must use thought to decipher what is really being said, as was the intent of the ancients. The Red Tent is fully engrossed within these customs of the story’s timeframe and location, as well as the subtle requirements of the ancient mind. I thought often as I read the story how something like watching a bird in flight or a cat within a shadow allowed new variants of thought for ancient people, since today the distractions of tv and computers do not make this easy. As a society, we think our innovations are so necessary, and yet the expansion of our minds may be the price that we pay. One has to carve out the possibility for such quiet and stillness in the world today, and thus to read about it as such a common part of life in this story is escapism in itself. The reader is essentially time-traveling.
The importance and inner life that is given to the structures and dwellings of the ancients is a lesson unto itself, and the referenced tent is an intricate part of their ancient customs. ‘Red’ denotes the blood that the women were ‘housed’ in monthly, but also signifies how brutal their lives were. The menstrual tent, i.e. the red tent, represents perceived womanhood, female council and memory, and also the incredible trial that they are subject to. One of Dinah’s mothers, Rachel, ‘cost her [own] mother her life and insurmountable blood upon her birth,’ therefore Rachel has a death weighing on her from the beginning of her life. Diamant captures the emotional measure of this, and writes, “In the red tent we knew that death was the shadow of birth, the price women pay for the honor of giving life.” This description is also linked with the bloody tale of how Dinah is avenged for the sake of her stolen womanhood when she’s described as ‘raped,’ though the reader will come to understand the liberties that Diamant has taken with the Biblical story.
Interestingly, red is also the color of passion and Jesus, and the purposeful sacrifice that Dinah makes as a key part of the story. As women often sacrifice their lives for the sake of birth, Dinah may see herself as sacrificing her youth and happiness, and even her only son, as an atonement for the sins of her brothers, as the pain signified by the tent is in large measure emotional. Dinah later acknowledges that “The painful things—Werenro’s story, Re-nefer’s choice, even my own loneliness—seemed like the knots on a beautiful necklace, necessary for keeping the beads in place.” Pain is an accepted and necessary part of life and keeps life orderly in a way that nothing else can.
The individual stories that run through the book are about all the characters, in the voices of the characters, from the most important of them to the least – none are forgotten, like a great interwoven carpet. Women want daughters to keep their stories alive, for memory itself is a holy thing, carried in the feminine vessel, a fact they were keenly aware of. Lineages are distinct and recorded meticulously because the characters live and die by holy memory. The Red Tent, both the book and the menstrual tent of the story, is at its core an account of Jacob’s children by his wives, and how they passed down their stories to their children. Stories were always linked by the spirituality that was ascribed to everything, such as that they thought Rachel was enchanted by water when she was a child, accumulating with her clean scent and meeting Jacob at the well. There is a story for everything natural or practical, including the vitalness of weaving and clothing for the women.
Dinah thus begins her story with this background of her mothers, captured within an insightful lesson of how humans are products of their surroundings. She noticeably shapes the descriptions of them with her own opinions. Possibly because of their stories, she says that people are “nothing but an echo from the grave,” for an echo is essentially a word repeated many times and may hint that a story is graced when it is retold. Dinah seems aware of this grace bequeathed by her words, and she seems aware of her power when she gives her impressions of those she knows. Of her youngest sibling she says (as though she’s aware of casting a blueprint for the future), “Even as a child, I knew that Joseph would be the one to carry the family story into the next generation.”
Through these stories and the characters who tell them, the reader can also see how people of the era believe they have the power to shape their stories by the manner in which they are remembered. Part One ends with Dinah’s birth and infancy, and though it seems to take a long time to get to Dinah, I think this was to accentuate the importance of storytelling and the bond between female memories. She says of this intricacy, “I am not certain whether my earliest memories are truly mine, because when I bring them to mind, I feel my mothers’ breath on every word.” Dinah herself wants to be known for who she is, rather than who she’s perceived to be or who her society says she is. Her awareness makes the reader realize the value of words and wordsmithing in the history of humankind, and that the most important legacy we really have is our stories.
The secret burden Dinah carries throughout life is the murder of her husband by her brothers, which not only brings her lifelong unhappiness (until the last part of her life), but also the subtle understanding that she has the personal power to curse the husband of a mother she helps to deliver as well as her brothers who brought her sadness upon her. In several ways, the author embellishes or deviates from Biblical passages, including the ‘rape’ of Dinah, presumably in order to give another meaning to what may be known of ancient times. The ‘rape’ becomes Dinah’s longed-for wedding night, by Diamant’s will, and the kindness of Laban is altered to become his shallow cruelty. Jacob wrestling with an angel of God also takes on a different meaning. I read the Biblical passages again along with the book because I knew there were some things that were altered to suit a fictional re-telling in an effort to give more detail than otherwise provided – though always fully fledged within the details of ancient life.
For history lovers, these up-close views of the world as it was in its distant past are utterly amazing. The reader sees the waters of the ancient Euphrates River, the Egyptian men swimming in the water (strangers to Dinah), and how the water feels on their bodies as Jacob’s caravan crosses. When Egypt is introduced into any ancient story, so too it seems is mystery, and this story proves no different. Later, when Dinah lives in Egypt after her tragedy, she says of the land and its population, “Egypt loved the lotus because it never dies. It is the same for people who are loved.” These lines may also describe Rebecca, Dinah’s grandmother, who, though very harsh and unjust in Dinah’s eyes, is a force of nature. Dinah says of her grandmother (mirroring Egypt, like the kohl that lines Rebecca’s eyes mirrors the sun), “Her years proclaimed themselves in the deep furrows on her brow and around her mouth, but the beauty of youth still clung to her.” The reader can feel the mystical power of Rebecca, and also Dinah’s negative impression of her entitlement and unfairness. The same may be said for Egypt.
Striking and indicative of human struggle as well are the passages about the pain and disappointment that Dinah has witnessed in her life, both before and after her tragedy. An intimate sentence about the miscarriage of a baby she delivers is as follows: “The tears from my eyes fell upon her alabaster cheek, and it appeared that she mourned the passing of her own life.” Her duties as a midwife save her like she had wanted to save the child she could not (which may have been symbolic of her life before her tragedy). Describing her duties as a midwife, which again closely align with her wished-for needs after her tragedy when she gave birth to pain, she says, “I called for fresh water to bathe the mother’s face, for fresh straw, for lotus cones to freshen the room, and for five serving women, who gathered around their mistress to offer encouragement.”
To end, I return to the research conducted to tell this story, which is admirable and amazing. As a writer, I know that every little question, even those seemingly unimportant or insignificant, can lay the groundwork for a believable story in which the reader can lose themselves in. Countless hours spent in books and on the internet, only to discover a simple detail about everyday life, will make or break the knowability of the storyline. I appreciate this author’s research and her ability to build on that research in order to make the entrance into another world seem effortless and even unnoticeable. This is a top-notch historical story, a story that an archaeologist at heart would love to sink their teeth into. The storyline itself, though divergent from the actual wording/meaning/insinuation of the Bible, is fascinating.
Justine Johnston Hemmestad has a published novella called Truth be Told and a published novel called Visions of a Dream, and she is included in seventeen anthologies including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries and Into the Glen, Into the Light.
She also has stories published in several magazines, including The Nonbinary Review and Kaleidoscope. In total, she has been writing for twenty-five years. She earned her Master’s Degree in English Literature from Northern Arizona University in 2020, despite a car accident thirty years earlier in which she sustained a severe brain injury. She also has seven children and two grandchildren.