Still on the Shelf: The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

This is the third of my Still on the Shelf series, where I’ll tell you, book by blessed book, why I periodically run a dust rag across them, pull them off the shelf, and open them up to read.

A lifetime of reading has left me with a sizable number of books. Throughout the years I have donated them for tax deductions and traded them for credit by the carload. But for all the trimming and weeding my collection has undergone these past decades, the ones remaining on the shelves are there for a reason: they’ve withstood the tests of time. Although I’m more inclined to pick up my Kindle these days, there are still plenty of books on my shelves, and The Red Tent is one of them.

The Red Tent
by Anita Diamant
Publisher: Picador
Copyright: 10th Anniversary Edition (August 21, 2007)
352 pages

The written account of the world’s history came to us through centuries ofenforced feminine silence. While it’s no secret that women’s stories and their perspective of historical events were related by men — if told or written at all! — I don’t believe we realize the impact this lack of voice has had on our present-day lives.

The traditional male-skewed spin on history omits half of the human story, and this lack of voice has left an empty place in the psyche of women as well as men. The resulting trance-like trail of indifference and incompleteness blazes still at the very center of our beings — we modern women and men — and all who came before us. It left a gaping, festering wound that’s been undergoing therapy for decades. If it had been left untended, the sore would, in time, infect the totality of the human race and kill it. This is the diagnosis, but is there a cure?47089

Part of the treatment certainly must include retelling history to include the equally important feminine view. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant joins other writers in applying the medicine that will speed our healing. Rewriting history, whether a factual or fictional retelling, encourages restoration. This novel joins others like Ahab’s Wife and Wide Sargasso Sea in giving the voice of woman to our real and collective past. The Red Tent tells the other side, the female side, and rounds out the story. And what a different story it is.

The Red Tent is set in ancient biblical times. Speaking to us is Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob — you may remember the story of Jacob and his 12 sons. Dinah is mentioned briefly in the Bible, given only one line. Yet, Anita Diamant gives her full voice throughout this novel. It’s a rich voice that tells the story of the bonds between women, of the fascination of love, of the consequences of betrayal.

However, what was most apparent to me is how, as Joseph Campbell postulates, the Bible serves as a metaphor for truth. This ancient biblical setting was a time of great shifting in human values: from a religion of goddess worship to one of Judaism, from a system of matriarchy to patriarchy. It was a time of painful transitions. The ancient goddess cultures weren’t destroyed overnight — the shift took hundreds of years. The struggle between sets of values and their eventual intermingling caused centuries of intolerance, violence, and chaos. Jacob and his sons were obviously insistent on the ways of the god of their forefathers and were not tolerant of any other beliefs. It is this intolerance that sets the stage for Dinah’s betrayal and imminent self-outcasting.

To tell you more would ruin the story. However, the details of plot, characterization, tone, and setting are well orchestrated, and the result is an extremely enjoyable and insightful trip to the ancient world.

What history lacks is the clear, bold voice of woman. What Anita Diamant has done with this novel is help to rewrite history and to give substance to the pain, and the healing must continue. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, once said that your greatest contribution comes from your pain. Similarly, I believe the greatest collective contribution of women must come from the pain of the ages. With The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has made such a contribution. It’s a large, deep, dirty wound that needs much more time to heal. We must continue to apply salve to the wound.

And that’s why it’s still on the shelf.

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