DINAH is a minor character in the Bible, the daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph and his twelve brothers, but The Red Tent by Anita Diamant uses Dinah as the central character in a story of women and womanhood in a time and place that is very different from our own.
This story is written from Dinah’s point of view, as an exploration of women’s history through the oral tradition; a tradition that values daughters as the carriers of family history.
Dinah’s story begins with her mothers, the four wives of Jacob. She recounts how he came to work for his uncle, Laban, prospers and marries the four daughters of Laban. These women, Leah, Zilpah, Rachel and Bilhah, work together to build a thriving community, despite some friction between them; their hard work and diverse skills help build Jacob’s prosperity. The everyday work of women is examined, detailing the labour of producing food, clothing, and maintaining the health of the people and animals.
The Red Tent is an essential part of the women’s lives, a place of retreat; while menstruation is often considered unclean, both in ancient and modern times, this book celebrates menarche, menses, pregnancy and birth. The celebration of menarche is in particular contrast with the cult of virginity, where bloodstained sheets are examined as ‘proof’ after the wedding night. The role of the midwife is honoured in acknowledgement of the life-threatening risks of pregnancy and birth.
Dinah’s mother and aunts raise her, care for her, advise her and support her in their different ways. In particular, she learns the skills of midwifery from Rachel, and these pave the way to the second part of her life.
While the roles of men are less closely examined in this book, the traditional gender roles adopted are generally depicted sympathetically. Jacob and his sons guard and rear the animals, trade the meat, cloth and food produced, and lead and protect their community when moving into new lands.
The group members particularly liked the positive depiction of womanhood, whether this was bloodily physical, with sisterly support and friction, or the intense spirituality of religious rituals.
One member drew attention to the lovely idea of death shown in the book, with dead loved ones welcoming the dying, and the dead living on in the people who loved them, remembering them through the things they made.
Another member noticed that that rhythm of prose was biblical, even while the narrative framed modern ideas. The group found that this was clever book, deeply researched with beautiful descriptions, producing an immersive, absorbing page-turner.
As a group the Literati rated it 9.5/10.
This book is available for borrowing from Libraries in Pembrokeshire; a small reservation fee may be required if it is not at your branch, or if all copies are out on loan.